That is the question that sent N.J. dealers onto the icy water to test the safety of post-Sandy boating
Months after Hurricane Sandy struck, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — still trying to secure federal aid — continued to warn of debris languishing in the state’s waterways.
As recently as February the Republican governor said there still was a “mind-boggling” amount of debris that needed removal, warning boaters not to be lulled by placid waters on the surface. “Everything you can imagine is sitting in our waterways,” he said.
New York officials issued similar warnings, advising boaters that there would be serious issues if they ventured into Long Island Sound and the surrounding areas in the wake of the storm that caused $650 million worth of damage to boats, including 1,400 that sank. Although sympathetic to the push for federal aid, people in the marine industry were concerned the warnings would deter boaters from getting back on the water as the season approached.
So members of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey began boarding their own boats, or those they were selling from their dealerships, and surveying the waters firsthand. Despite a late spring, they went out to learn whether it was truly as hazardous as officials were making it sound.
“We pretty much spent all winter getting our facilities up and running so we could be ready for the spring,” says Don Ditzel of Comstock Yacht Sales and Marina in Brick, N.J., and vice president of the MTA/NJ. “But we did not want to sit here saying everything was fine if it wasn’t, so the only way to prove it was fine was to go boating and freeze. I don’t know if they were scare tactics, but it almost put boating in New Jersey as a wash this season. So we wanted to say kind of the opposite. We’ve been boating since early March, and we’ve encountered no issues. I personally think these facts were coming out to push for more federal aid to our area, which is fine. It’s just that it would negatively affect my business, as well as many others.”
With GoBoatingNJ.com, the trade group is getting the word out, posting videos of boaters traveling through areas affected by storm debris. In some cases, the group says it found locations that were cleaner than they had been prior to the storm.
“Even things that have been in the water for years are getting cleaned up,” says MTA/NJ executive director Melissa Danko. “That’s a message we’ve been trying to publicize.”
The effort is paying off, she said in May. “Views on our videos continue to increase, and we are getting a lot of positive feedback. Unfortunately, there are still negative stories running in our local papers, so we are preparing for more videos and continuing our outreach.”
The group planned to launch “Want to know? We will go!” in late May as part of the effort so boaters with concerns about specific areas can see whether those waterways are navigable. MTA/NJ also planned to launch a video contest on Facebook.
Spring was late
The threat to the 2013 boating season came at a time when marina owners and boat dealers needed no additional challenges, Ditzel says. “Typically our spring is determined by the weather,” he says. “This year, we haven’t had the best weather, and when the storm happened, the biggest fear was that people would throw their hands up in the air and say, ‘Just forget it.’ ”
Small businesses are still struggling in many parts of the state, Danko says. “It’s been a hard six months for everyone here, and it’s still hard, so we just wanted to have something positive to show people,” she says. “A lot of people lost homes entirely. It’s still very raw here, especially along the coast. Our members were getting more and more calls from customers asking, ‘What’s in the waterways? Are they safe?’ ”
The MTA/NJ had been working closely with state agencies and knew debris was being cleared, but word wasn’t getting out to boaters despite the group’s efforts at boat shows to let people know that many waterways were safe. “I don’t think any of us felt like it was enough,” Danko says.
So after testing the waters, literally, the group went armed with smartphones and video cameras to take videos to post as proof that the waterways were navigable. “We all just realized we needed to do something more — get out on waterways ourselves, get someone to take video — and it all sort of evolved from there.”
Six months to the day after Sandy hit, and only about a month or two after the GoBoatingNJ effort launched, the federal government signed off on $1.8 billion in aid to help recovery efforts. An allocation of $50 million will be used to provide critical funding support to municipalities by helping to subsidize the local match for Federal Emergency Management Agency public assistance projects. This will ensure that local governments have sufficient resources to continue providing essential services without resorting to tax increases or other measures that may cause further hardship.
Danko says the approval couldn’t have come too soon. “We’re still fighting really hard to get businesses money,” she says.
Shore-area businesses damaged by Sandy and falling short of the money they need to recover may be eligible for grants of as much as $50,000 through a state program. The Stronger New Jersey Business Grant Program was expected to begin taking applications in early May and begin doling out money later in the month.
Perhaps because of the videos, or maybe because of the federal aid, the governor’s office issued a frequently- asked-questions document for boaters April 3. The first question: Will there be a boating season at the Jersey shore and along the coast this summer? The answer: “Of course we’re going to have a boating season — this is New Jersey! Sandy was devastating, but the state is cleaning up our waterways. We’re going to have a great shore season; you just need to be a little more careful than before Sandy. Gov. Christie is committed to ensuring that coastal communities are open for tourism and recreation this summer. The state is removing debris and sand from its waterways throughout coastal New Jersey and our storm-impacted bays.”
Still, the document cautions, “Cleanup will likely continue into the fall. Not all waterway debris has been identified, and identified debris can shift around. Superstorm Sandy was extremely destructive, and you may encounter hazards in the water, so use caution.”
In May, the administration touted the demolition of a Mantoloking home that had been swept into Barnegat Bay and remained there for months. Underwater obstructions that can’t be removed immediately are being marked to enable boaters to safely navigate, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The agency will work with the Marine Services Bureau of the state police, the state Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard and municipalities to assess boating safety as cleanup progresses, and it will issue navigational and public safety announcements as needed.
Dredging will be done as needed, with a priority placed on areas where there is a blockage of storm sewer outfalls and shoals near marinas and other heavily traveled areas.
As much as New Jersey marine businesses hope the funding will help, they also hope the videos will spread the word that although boaters should always remain cautious, concerns about debris shouldn’t deter them from going boating.
“The New Jersey boating industry, as big as it is, it’s very small,” Ditzel says. “Everyone knows each other. To get a bunch of dealers to hop into boats and go for a five-minute ride — it says a lot about what we’re trying to accomplish here.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.