Hurricane Maria, which slammed into St. Croix before devastating Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm, will make a significant impact on the boating industry, though the extent of it might not ever fully be appreciated.
“It’s a huge loss to the maritime industry,” BoatUS CAT team member D.J. Smith, who spent time on both islands Oct. 11-14, told Trade Only Today. “It’s staggering, actually.”
“There are huge amounts of foreign entities there that are charter fleets that aren’t American or American-registered,” Smith said. Many of the boats there are registered in St. Martin and St. Croix, as well as countries around the world.
“Just saying glancing out there, there’s a lot of boats that are damaged out there,” Smith said. “That includes boats from the United States, St. Martin, Russian boats — all types of vessels from all around the world typically converge on these islands because of their beauty. It’s a boating mecca basically because everybody from around the world comes there. We’ll never know who lost what or what’s damaged.”
Smith, who wound up tallying between 45 and 50 days salvaging and assessing boats through hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, also visited the region after Hurricane Hugo in 1989.
“I think as far as the vegetation on [Puerto Rico], Hugo did a lot of damage, but Maria did probably three times as much,” Smith said. “Every tree was dead, all the power lines were down. Traffic was a snarl out there because people were all going to one certain place to get water, food and gas.”
The marinas fared pretty well because they rebuilt up to a higher standard after Hugo, Smith said. “But the boats — when you have high surge, boats have a tendency to break lines, break loose and end up on pilings. If they’re not secured properly, it can become a mess.”
More than a month after the storm, 83 percent of Puerto Rico was without power, Smith said. Boats were scattered in waterways and on land on the east and west ends of the island. “That kind of tells you, the whole island, it took a direct hit,” he said. “The eye went in between Fajardo, which is a huge boating mecca, as well as Palmas Del Mar.”
High-rises were largely gutted because of the extreme wind, Smith said. “It almost looked like they were just deserted or abandoned. It was kind of an ugly sight down there. It really was.”
A 42-foot Lagoon catamaran, owned by a man from Texas, was in Palmas Del Mar when the storm hit. The boat had a hole in the port-side stern about 2 feet in diameter, Smith said.
“When they came back they thought they were going to see a mass pile of fiberglass, but his boat survived pretty well and was not a total loss. There were quite a few boats that had sunk and sustained a lot of damage,” Smith said.
Another claim Smith worked on was a 45-foot Hunter, a late-model boat that was totally sitting on the bottom. “So that’s the extreme you had in those marinas. But the marina itself, with the exception of broken pilings, fared pretty well. The older ones didn’t fare as well, but the newer marinas built after Hugo did pretty well.”
“That’s something a boat owner might want to look at when cruising the Caribbean — look for those marinas built to standard that can survive wind up to 145 mph and have floating docks, so if you have a surge the dock will go up and down with the surge,” Smith said. “You’re probably not going to get as much damage there as if you dock in a marina built in the ’60s and ’70s.”
“These are all learning curves,” Smith added. “Every time one of these things hit, you see what kind of damage you get, and engineers and builders and owners, everybody should learn from all this. It’s getting a little bit better, but the forces of Mother Nature are pretty strong, so it’s hard to avoid some kind of damage — especially in a Category 4 or 5 storm.”