The United States experienced a historic year of weather and climate disasters in 2017, with 16 catastrophes costing $306.2 billion, shattering the record of $214.8 billion set in 2005. That year’s record damage was attributable to hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita and Wilma.
Last year’s spike was largely due to Category 4 hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which slammed Texas and Florida, damaging more than 63,000 recreational boats for a combined estimate of $655 million. It was the first time two Category 4 hurricanes hit the U.S. coast during the same year since data collection began in 1914. A year later, the impacted communities are still recovering.
Irma destroyed many trailers and other affordable housing in the Florida Keys, and advocates and officials expect few residents to return. “Folks are living in unlawful spaces that don’t meet code, unsafe spaces, and they have been doing it because they want to be there and it’s the only way they can afford to be there,” Jaimie Ross, president of the Florida Housing Coalition, told Reuters.
“I’m estimating between 15 and 25 percent of our population is going to be lost, and we lose more and more every day,” Monroe County commissioner George Neugent told the wire service.
Capt. Kevin Freestone, owner of the Big Pine Key TowBoatUS franchise, thinks that number has gotten even higher. “It’s going to be a long haul,” he says. “The shortness of contractors and the lull of the county getting all the permits out to everybody is holding everybody up.”
Freestone says much of the debris is finally getting cleaned up, with some delays because workers left town and never came back. “They lost their houses, and there’s not any affordable housing left,” he says, “so it’s become a bit of a chore getting things done down here.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott approved 1,300 affordable housing units in June as part of an effort to combat the Keys’ crisis, but Freestone believes it’s too late to draw back residents who have moved on. “I think we lost half our staff in land-based businesses,” Freestone says. “Any available housing that was open, contractors came in and swooped up. As far as affordable housing, I don’t think it’s ever going to come back. We’re going to be in a little bit of a pickle here in the future for places to live.”
Infrastructure slow to return
Harvey leveled Cove Harbor Marina & Drystack in Rockport, Texas. The facility was still working to get its fuel tanks online and rebuild docks and buildings in late June. “Even with all of the rain, we are working hard on Building 1,” the company posted on Facebook. “According to our plan, this will be the first building to open. The framing has been completed, and we started putting the roof on this week. The hope is that we will begin the skinning process very soon, and the stack will take shape.”
Cooper Capital took over an area near the marina’s wet slips to auction totaled boats, and nearby Key Allegro Marina’s most recent post asks boaters not to attempt to access the facilities.
Irma-ravaged Sea Center Marina on Big Pine Key hasn’t reopened either, Freestone says. “They got hammered so bad — they’ve not even recovered what they needed from the insurance company to become operational again,” he says. “He’ll be lucky if he ever opens back up again. A lot of the main marinas that are still here, and places to get gas or repairs, they’ve let all their mechanics go.”
Dolphin Marina and Cottages on Little Torch Key will be closed for at least another six months, according to Florida Keys News. Irma destroyed the dockmaster’s office, fuel dock, cottages and main office.
“As far as the boating community goes, there are very few places to get fuel,” Freestone says. “I actually put fuel tanks in to sustain myself because it’s going to be a little while.”
Shelly Breedlove, manager at Driftwood Marina and Storage in Marathon, Fla., says the marina is operational, but storage is full — a common situation around the state as other slips and storage facilities have yet to be repaired. “A lot of people, if their boat is good, they’re busy taking care of homes,” Breedlove says. “They don’t have time to deal with boats. Other people live up North, and it’s been time-consuming to get insurance companies and contractors together. They’re just sitting in storage until they’re ready to come back.”
A design team was named in late June to help plan the reconstruction of Seaplane Base and Marina in Tavares, Fla., according to the Orlando Sentinel. The St. Augustine Municipal Marina is offering a “limited number of slips” with shore power and water for overnight dockage, but no long-term dockage.
Freestone says it’s a conservative estimate that the Keys have a third less storage than prior to Irma. “It’s very hard to get into a marina right now,” he says. “They’re not taking customers without insurance policies and a deposit. … At Sea Center, we probably lost 100 high and dry spots. Without that, there is really nowhere to store boats for transient owners.”
Sunshine Key RV Resort & Marina in Big Pine Key is still wiped out, Freestone says, and Bahia Honda State Park in the Keys in June was still working to recover. The marina is offering the use of ramps, but overnight stays are closed while repairs are ongoing.
Boaters still boating
Still, boating traffic seems to be up in Houston and in the Keys, according to locals. “I’m seeing that they’re getting their boats together, getting new boats and getting out on the water, regardless of the house being half gone or whatever,” Freestone says. “The weekends come, and people are getting on the water and putting it behind them for a day.”
The Houston Boat Show, which ran June 13-17, was up about 12 percent in sales. Part of the increase was due to people replacing Harvey-damaged boats, says Ken Lovell, president of the show. “Some dealers reported selling 70 or 80 boats during the show,” he says.
Lovell estimates that the region is about 90 percent recovered in terms of housing. He is also seeing a healthy amount of boat traffic on lakes and in the bay. “You’re seeing more people, especially on inland lakes,” he says. “Our summer has been very warm up to this point. The lake traffic on the weekends is extremely strong. Just listening to dealers, we’re having a very strong season.”
Past claims and game plans
BoatUS is still handling claims out of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Croix in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria, says Mike McCook, coordinator for the catastrophe response team. “It was quite a season, and it’s still kicking around for sure,” McCook says. “It’s moving much slower down there because of the lack of assets, the lack of affordable housing for workers and some of the government’s rules. You have to get permits, and the lack of skilled technicians plagued us both in the U.S. and in the Caribbean.”
With another hurricane season looming, it’s important for people to have a game plan, says Kerry McCook, senior supervisor of property claims at BoatUS. “It’s important not just for the boat, but to have a plan for your home and family, especially if you’re in an area that’s prone,” McCook says.
When a storm is five days away from potential landfall in the Keys, Freestone begins shuttering businesses and boarding houses, a plan that was implemented after Category 2 Hurricane Georges hit in 1998. Though Freestone is hopeful another storm won’t hit the region this year — “I don’t know what we’d do,” he says — his TowBoatUS franchise has added equipment to double its salvage capabilities.
“The new equipment might sit here and not be used for a little while, but you never know,” Freestone says. “We went over our boats with the plan. If we need to help a neighbor, the salvage equipment is available. The trailer’s ready to go, so if we need to leave just to get the heck out of here, we can. It’s money well spent sometimes to make sure you’ve got everything in good shape.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2018 issue.