Hurricanes Harvey and Irma damaged more than 63,000 recreational boats for a combined estimate of $655 million — drawing comparisons to 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, believed to be the single-largest industry loss with more than 65,000 damaged boats and more than $650 million in estimated losses, according to BoatUS.
Irma damaged or destroyed 50,000 boats, causing about $500 million in damage, according to the early November BoatUS estimate. About 13,500 boats were damaged or lost because of Harvey, at $155 million.
The estimates include only recreational boats and do not account for damaged docks, boat lifts, boatyards, marinas or other types of infrastructure, says BoatUS Public Relations Vice President Scott Croft. “I caution people that it’s an estimate,” he says.
“They are our best estimates, taking what we know about our size of the business and extrapolating that to the larger industry.
“This is not the worst storm — people were asking if this was the worst” for recreational boat damage, Croft adds. “Sandy has that. Irma’s No. 2. But we believe 2004 was the worst year on record for boat damage,” when Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne ravaged Florida. “I say that loosely because we don’t have the exact data. We did some number crunching … and tried to adjust for inflation.”
Night and day
This year, the industry escaped less ravaged than it might have been had Irma hit Florida where and as strongly as predicted. “If you just look at Irma, it’s significant, but it could’ve been a lot worse,” Croft says. “It could’ve gone up the east coast of Florida. It could’ve done more surge damage in Tampa Bay.”
Irma hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 10, then hit the Florida mainland as a Category 3, and then became a Category 2 as it traveled through the state.
Harvey slammed into the Texas coast Aug. 25 as a Category 4 storm — dumping feet of rain and flooding much of Houston as it hovered for days as a tropical storm — before trudging northeast and flooding additional towns.
“These two storms were as different as night and day,” says BoatUS Marine Insurance Program Claims Vice President Rick Wilson. “The boats that were hit the hardest by Harvey were located on a relatively small slice of Texas coast, while we saw damage to recreational vessels from Irma in every corner of Florida.”
Irma came with a storm surge close to 10 feet in Everglades City, Fla., and 110-mph sustained winds. The storm’s positioning and counterclockwise rotation pulled in water from the Atlantic Ocean on Florida’s east coast, creating a surge that looked like whitewater rapids in areas of the upper Florida Keys and the Brickell Point neighborhood of Miami.
If Irma had stayed on its predicted track and lingered off Florida’s Gulf Coast, its eastern wall could have sent 15 feet of storm surge into Fort Myers, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
“While Hurricane Irma’s losses are significant, it could have been much worse,” Wilson says. “Irma ultimately traveled up Florida’s west coast and not the east, which was initially forecast. And while locations in the right front quadrant of the storm, such as Big Pine Key and Marathon, were hit hard with a Category 4 storm, Irma lost strength as it approached the mainland and swept up Florida. As the storm passed east of Tampa Bay, waters receded and came back gradually, also lessening surge damage.”
The National Marine Manufacturers Association sought input from the recreational marine industry on hurricane relief funding and allocation, and the U.S. Congress debated a third aid package with specific criteria on how funds would be distributed in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico after Harvey, Irma and Maria.
Texas alone was asking for $61 billion more, and Gov. Greg Abbott has sent Congress a 282-project wish list — much of which details needs for water and boating infrastructure.
Overall industry damage is difficult to assess, particularly when accounting for recreational infrastructure damage, water infrastructure damage and toxicity issues in the water.
The BoatUS Catastrophe Team recently completed two months of field operations arranging for repairs, salvage or wreck removals for BoatUS Marine Insurance program members and Geico Marine Insurance customers.
After spending weeks responding to Harvey and Irma, BoatUS CAT team member D.J. Smith went on to salvage boats damaged by Hurricane Maria, which slammed into St. Croix before devastating Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm.
Maria caused “a huge loss to the maritime industry,” says Smith, who spent time on both islands Oct. 11-14. “It’s staggering, actually. There are huge amounts of foreign entities there that are charter fleets that aren’t American or American-registered.”
Many of the boats there are registered in St. Martin and St. Croix, as well as other nations. “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,” Smith says. “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.
“I think as far as the vegetation on [Puerto Rico], Hugo did a lot of damage, but Maria did probably three times as much,” he adds, noting that he recovered boats there after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. “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.”
Puerto Rico’s marinas fared pretty well because they rebuilt to a higher standard after Hugo, Smith says. “But the boats — when you have high surge, boats have a tendency to break lines, break loose and end up on pilings,” he says. “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 says. 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 says. “The eye went in between Fajardo, which is a huge boating mecca, as well as Palmas Del Mar.”
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 says.
“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,” Smith says. “There were quite a few boats that had sunk and sustained a lot of damage.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue.