‘It could not have been worse’

Posted on Written by Chris Landry

12_sandy_1Storm damaged or destroyed 65,000 pleasure boats, with $650M loss; marina toll is yet to be calculated

Marina owners, salvagers and insurance companies say Hurricane Sandy stands out as the most devastating storm they’ve experienced, leaving a broad swath of destruction with a record-setting tidal surge that mangled docks, destroyed boats and wiped out entire marinas.

More than 65,000 recreational boats were destroyed or damaged, says BoatUS spokesman Scott Croft, with a total loss in the area of $650 million. That figure eclipses the previous record of $500 million set by Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The Tri-State area took the brunt of the storm, Croft says. New York had $324 million in boat losses, followed by New Jersey at $242 million and Connecticut with $23 million. Damage in other states totaled $60 million, he says.

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of the storm,” says Steve Stavracos, 55, owner of Steve’s Marine Service in Amityville and Patchogue on New York’s Long Island. “What the newspapers are saying is correct: It was the perfect storm. It came in on a lunar high tide. It could not have been worse. In all my years in the business and as a boater I’ve never seen such devastation.”

Sandy caused more damage than Andrew, Katrina, Fran — “you name it,” says Sea Tow founder and CEO Joe Frohnhoefer. Twelve Sea Tow franchise areas that cover 560 miles of coastline were affected. “I have seen all the hurricanes, going back to Hurricane Carol, which was in the ’50s,” he says. “It’s much wider spread, and a lot more boats have been damaged or destroyed. The wind damage was bad, but the water damage was 10 times worse.”

As of early November, 260 marine facility owners had filed insurance claims with the Maritime General Agency in Westbrook, Conn., says company president Chris Pesce. “It’s remarkable,” Pesce says. “The damage is so widespread. We’ve been underwriters since 1990 and have never had an event that has caused anywhere near this amount of damage.”

13_sandy_1The tidal surge set a record in Lower Manhattan at 13.8 feet, nearly 4 feet higher than the previous high. At Kings Point, N.Y., the water rose to 14.4 feet, and it climbed to 13.3 feet in Sandy Hook, N.J. Tidal surge does the most damage in a hurricane, says BoatUS vice president of marine insurance Jim Holler, citing BoatUS studies. “That’s not to say the wind is not a major factor; it builds the surge up,” he says.

Croft says BoatUS has assembled the largest catastrophe team in its history — 70 surveyors. “It’s just a lot of boats,” he says. “At many marinas every boat needs some level of recovery, from some needing to be put back on their stands to those that sank or a pile of boats in need of triage.”

Sandy hit hardest in central and northern New Jersey, New York City (especially Staten Island) and western portions of both Long Island Sound and Long Island’s north and south shores. “It’s total devastation of all the marinas,” says Tom Hurst, owner of TowBoatUS Manasquan and Budget Boat Towing and Salvage in Brick, N.J. “[At] MarineMax the boats broke through the buildings. Garden State Marina — all the boats washed away and went across the street into the golf courses.”

Hurst says many of the boats that were left in the water survived, but those that were pulled were lost. “They kept saying the tidal surge would be 6 to 8 feet, then it went to 8 to 10 feet, and when the storm was about to hit they were saying a 13-foot tidal surge,” Hurst says. “You could stand out in the road — this is at 2 o’clock in the morning — and literally watch the water come up. And it just didn’t stop. It just kept coming and coming, and people started running from their houses. We had women with children down the street screaming for help.”

A week after the storm, the outlook remained bleak for Hurst. “Layers upon layers of problems” were preventing progress in the salvage of boats in the Brick area, Hurst says. “Things are the same or no better than they were a few days ago in our ‘ground zero’ area, and now we have this nor’easter coming,” Hurst said Nov. 5. The nor’easter hit Nov. 7. “There’s just no infrastructure — everyone is just holding on to what 5 gallons of gas they have. We have gas rationing. We have no power, no Internet, and we don’t even know what is going on outside of our bubble here, which is pretty much Ocean and Monmouth counties.”

15_sandy_1Hurst’s building is being used as the township’s fire and police headquarters. “I am feeding 200 people a day out of here.”

Pesce says the wreckage runs the gamut, from torn-up rooftops to entire marina facilities wiped out. “We’re hearing from some marina owners that their plans are not to rebuild, that they’re done,” Pesce says.” “Maybe when things normalize a bit, things will change.”

That may take months, Frohnhoefer says. “Things are starting to come back,” he says. “We’re getting boats back on the hard and back on jack stands. I think it is going to be six to eight weeks before we start to see any daylight, though.” Sea Tow had completed the salvage and cleanup of three marinas in the Atlantic City area, he says.

The day after the storm, the crew at Steve’s worked to get their machinery — the Travelift, forklifts and service vans — up and running so they could work, Stavracos says. “On the second day a crane came in and started lifting boats, and we’ve been using our equipment to put them where they belong so the yard is straightened out somewhat,” he says.

Many boats had been put up for the winter with their drains unplugged, which ultimately led to their demise. “They got caught by the tides and started to float and then started taking on water and sank,” Frohnhoefer says.

15_sandy_2Boaters did a good job of preparing for Sandy, but their efforts in many cases were to no avail, Holler says. “People took the precautions of having their boats hauled and put ashore on blocks, on cradles or jack stands,” Holler says. “Unfortunately, their marina was not very high above sea level, and when the surge came in, the water just took those boats and deposited them in a big pile in the parking lot. We have people who have gone to their marina to ascertain the damage and found the marina was no longer there.”

BoatUS salvage efforts have been slowed because many areas were still major catastrophe zones, such as the barrier islands of New Jersey, Croft says. “We are kind of in a holding pattern,” he says. “The problems are the lack of infrastructure and the safety concerns with law enforcement and access. We are not being allowed in some areas.”

Many marina owners were requesting that boat owners stay away from the marinas because of safety concerns, such as spilled fuel. “And they don’t want people coming into a marina and accidentally smoking a cigarette or climbing on a pile of boats and getting hurt,” Croft says.

Salvagers have received some grief from residents with damaged homes. “There’s anger from residents of these areas — not necessarily toward the boating industry,” Croft says. “They’re frustrated because their homes are damaged, and they see recovery efforts of boats, and they don’t understand why.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue.

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