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Hurricane Irma: tough lessons learned

Marina owners need to create, maintain and train with detailed plan to be ready for storms and cleanup afterward, experts say
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After a storm, electrically powered equipment, such as dock boxes and lifts, may not show signs of damage for months. 

After a storm, electrically powered equipment, such as dock boxes and lifts, may not show signs of damage for months. 

In the days after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key, Fla., Carl Wolf visited marinas in the southeastern part of the state. Wolf is an associate specializing in marina and boatyard operations at Robson Forensic, and he expected much of what he saw, but he was a little surprised by one source of damage to docks and shoreside structures.

“I saw dozens of boats, primarily sailboats, that had drifted ashore,” Wolf says. “The damage that facilities received were from sailboats on exterior moorings, and they drifted into other boats.”

The issue, he says, was chafing of the lines meant to secure boats to their moorings. One boat had an old fire hose over the mooring line to reduce chafing, and the line still abraded.

“There’s no assurances or guarantees that no matter what you do to your marina or boatyard that you’re going to be fully protected,” Wolf says.

The lesson about mooring-line integrity is one of many that Wolf shared in Irma’s aftermath. His top takeaway is the importance of having a hurricane plan before a storm hits. All of the five corporate- and municipal-owned marinas that he visited in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and on Biscayne Bay, had storm plans that they followed — and all were up and running within five days of Irma making landfall. The only thing missing was that one marina did not have Internet access.

“First you have to create it, second you have to maintain it and third you have to train with it,” Wolf says of a hurricane plan.

How to make a hurricane plan

When he’s not working for Robson, a forensic engineering firm based in Lancaster, Pa., Wolf teaches an intermediate marina management course for the Association of Marina Industries. He considers the development of a hurricane plan one of the most important parts of the curriculum.

One of the best resources Wolf recommends for marinas that need a plan is “Hurricane Preparedness Planning for Marinas and Marine Operations,” funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2011 and published by Allianz Risk Consulting. It can be found at

The planning document suggests that marina operators first list critical needs, such as removing vessels from wet storage, relocating larger vessels to safe harbors, securing property, and preparing docks and facilities. Then, marina operators can complete a “backward” planning exercise that begins with the desired condition of the facility after a storm. Thinking about the personnel and equipment needed to complete key tasks and achieve the end-condition goal can help marina operators understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie well before a storm lands.

An effective hurricane action plan should start 72 hours before severe weather is expected. If possible, critical tasks should be completed a day before the storm arrives. This is considered the “operational window” — the time to take necessary steps. Smaller tasks can be completed 12 hours before a storm, but employees also need time to get home or to safety if an evacuation is in process.


Some preliminary tasks can be completed even earlier than 72 hours out. These include tracking the weather, communicating with tenant-boat owners and taking equipment inventories.

Planning for communication is also paramount. Marina staff need the ability to check the weather frequently for storm track updates and to post them centrally at the facility, via email blasts or both, to keep customers informed.

Operators of marinas that directly face open water without any kind of breakwater must listen to estimates for wind-driven waves and storm surge, and prepare accordingly. Remove items such as dock boxes, signs and dinghies that can cause significant damage when wind propels them. Also remove gangways and secure them ashore.

Reinforce fixed docks to absorb vertical and horizontal forces. Consider the added stress on docks if they become submerged. If they’re not already installed, consider switching to floating docks designed with slip-loading factors to account for hurricane wind load and storm surge.

On any dock, installed utilities — including electrical, potable water and sewage systems — should be integrated in a way that makes storm preparation and recovery easier. Examples include removable power pedestals and dock boxes, and water lines that can be plugged and removed.

Marina operators also should have insurance coverage for infrastructure equipment, such as the docks and the electrical, water and utility systems, according to Lori Sousa, president of SeaLand Insurance.

And as for the problem that Wolf noted in Florida after Irma — boats breaking free from moorings — marina operators can urge boat owners to use bow and stern moorings to position a vessel so the bow points into the storm surge. Doubling the lines and lengthening them reduces stress and should improve the odds of the boat still being on the mooring after a storm.


Prepare for post-storm cleanup

Most of the tasks in a hurricane plan will be scheduled to take place before the weather arrives, but good plans also detail post-storm needs: securing the property against looters and trespassers, containing areas that could become dangerous, processing insurance claims, and assessing cleanup and repair capabilities.

Knowing the local regulations prior to rebuilding is key. For instance, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has eased permitting requirements that affect docks, bulkheads and boat lifts.

“You only need to have one piece remaining to rebuild,” says marina construction consultant John Sprague, president of JH Sprague Consulting LLC.

Marina operators also will need to advise the owners of boats that are submerged or that have experienced serious saltwater intrusion.

“We’re going to have trapped salt crystals in places where they’ve never been before, especially the electrical system,” says electrical expert Nigel Calder of Calder Enterprises in Damariscotta, Maine.

James Cote, an electrical engineer and owner of Cote Marine LLC in Coral Springs, Fla., says “it’s a rule of thumb that if a boat gets submerged in salt water, the wiring needs to be replaced.” He advises marina operators to give boat owners access to their vessels, but not to the shore-power system until repairs are made. “You can’t stop the boat owner from inspecting his boats,” Cote says. “You can stop him from plugging in.”

Marina personnel also have to be prepared for long-term problems with utilities and other systems, says Steve D’Antonio, a Wake, Va.-based consultant who dealt with hurricanes while managing a boatyard for 12 years in New England.

“Everything worked after the storm, but two months later, six months later, we had fires,” he says. Problems can also arise in potable water systems after they have been repaired, he says. Retest those systems, which are prone to contamination.

D’Antonio also suggests that marina personnel have a hot-water pressure washer. It can clean up grease and petroleum-based products without environmentally unfriendly solvents.

Resist the wind

One of the most common photos after a storm is of a collapsed dry-stack facility. Marina owners should know the wind rating — the strength of wind that can be tolerated — for every building on their property, and customers should ask about those ratings too.

One dry stack that withstood Irma’s onslaught was at Rose Marina in Marco Island, Fla. Safe Harbor Dry Stacks in Fort Myers, Fla., built it last December. It was rated for 170-mph winds.

Safe Harbor Dry Stacks has also adapted tilt-up concrete-wall warehouse construction to dry-stack facilities.

“In between the boat bays, I have a solid concrete wall, but in a metal building there’s nothing between the boats,” says Robert Brown, owner of GCM Contracting Solutions, the parent company of Safe Harbor. “To [talk about] how many boats is not the right question. It’s how many cubic feet.”

His bays are 30 feet wide with a wall between them. In addition to withstanding hurricane-force winds, he says, the buildings can stop flames from spreading in a fire.

Brown says his buildings cost about 10 percent more than a prefabricated metal building. The upfront expense is something marina owners need to consider alongside the cost of potential damage.

Florida marinas that were in Irma’s path are just now starting to think about future investments, but operators of facilities up north, where Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, have already had time for reflection.

“For us it was really the storm surge and the timing,” says Melissa Danko, executive director of the New Jersey Marine Trades Association.

Ahead of Sandy, many operators did what they had always done, getting things off floors and putting them on top of desks and tables. It wasn’t nearly enough.

“The water came in so high it went above the tables and desks,” Danko says.

She echoes Wolf’s argument that a hurricane plan is vital to recovery.

“When hurricane season begins each year, we send out all of our preparedness information,” Danko says. “A lot of it was things we learned from Sandy.”

Like Sousa, Danko recommends that marina, yard and boat owners review insurance policies at the start of every hurricane season so they know what’s covered. And after a storm, document everything. Sousa suggests taking photographs “of the entire facility once you get on site.”

Completing an insurance claim after a major storm, Sousa says, can take anywhere from six months to several years. Given that reality, some marina operators may also want to consider insurance that covers storm-preparation expenses, according to Jay Frechette of Starkweather & Shepley Insurance Brokerage in East Providence, R.I.

Documenting all damage should continue beyond the marina itself to include any boats being repaired there, says JB Currell, owner of Gibco Flex-Mold in Fort Worth, Texas.

“When you are recovering the boat, photograph it, video it,” he says.

Contact each boat’s manufacturer with the hull ID number to determine its build material and ask any new fiberglass subcontractors who pop up after a storm to provide references from other marinas. Customers may feel rushed to get back on the water, but smart post-hurricane construction means sticking with every step of the plan, including after the marina is operational.

Wet floodproofing lets water in strategically

After Hurricane Sandy flooded Baywood Marina, in Brick Township, N.J., five years ago, General Manager Skip Harrison was ready to rebuild. He researched ways to reduce future floodwater damage and found a construction process called wet floodproofing.

The concept is that instead of trying to keep the water out (known as dry floodproofing), building modifications can let floodwaters enter through strategically placed openings or breakaway sections.

“We couldn’t raise the building and do the work we do, so we put in flood vents that allow the water in,” Harrison says. “It keeps it from crushing under the floodwaters.”

All of the building’s studs are now pressure-treated, and the insulation is Styrofoam. The drywall is water-resistant, and there are gaps above and below the walls, covered by trim.

“If it does flood again, take off the molding, wash everything, repaint and you’re done,” Harrison says.

All electrical wires are run from the ceiling down, and the outlets are 34 inches off the floor (the floodwaters from Sandy rose to 31 inches). The wires don’t have the typical brown paper between them because it retains water.

The showroom flooring consists of plastic snap-down tiles, with linoleum in the offices.

Harrison estimates that it cost $30,000 more to rebuild with wet floodproofing, but the upfront expense saves him 69 percent on flood insurance. He was paying $10,000 a year and now pays $3,100 annually.

“The best thing you can do as a business owner,” says Robert Smith, a marina specialist at MYMIC in Portsmouth, Va., is “please don’t take a shortcut.”



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