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Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa, a barrier island off Fort Myers, Fla., around 3 p.m. Sept. 28. The storm hit as an upper-end Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph and surge measured as high as 14 feet. Parts of Sanibel, Marco and Pine islands, as well as Fort Myers Beach, were destroyed. Power and internet were lost immediately. Local businesses and residents were displaced, and roadways and bridges were gone. Fatalities in Florida alone were estimated at more than 100.

Hurricane Ian was a larger and more powerful storm than Charley, which hit the Fort Myers area in 2004. Florida FWC estimates that 
7,000 vessels were displaced.

Hurricane Ian was a larger and more powerful storm than Charley, which hit the Fort Myers area in 2004. Florida FWC estimates that 7,000 vessels were displaced.

Despite all of that, the mindset for local members of the recreational boating industry is, “We will be back.”

“It’s just been overwhelming, the number of phone calls from marine trades associations around the country,” says Kyle Good, membership director for the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association.

Members of the recreational boating industry from all parts of the country gathered generators, fresh water, blue tarps and other supplies, and brought it all to folks in damaged areas. FB Marine Group in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., supported a group of offshore powerboat racers who brought water, tarps and other supplies to friends and business owners. Mercury Racing and one of its longtime clients, Nor-Tech Hi-Performance Boats in Cape Coral, Fla., announced funding and fundraising efforts. So did the Honda family of businesses, donating $500,000 in disaster-relief funds to the American Red Cross to support food security and shelter needs.

The SWFMIA partnered with the Old Salt Fishing Foundation and the Annapolis Boat Shows’ Hands Across the Transom Hurricane Relief Fund to create the Hurricane Ian Marine Industry Relief Fund.

Captains for Clean Water was at ground zero hours after Ian hit. Even though the group’s office was destroyed, along with many members’ homes, the captains and guides worked around the clock. They helped navigate the waters for rescue efforts, set up drop-off locations for donations in eastern Florida, and got locals the supplies they needed. The group also has its own Hurricane Ian Relief Fund.

The nonprofit arm of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida, is raising money through the foundation’s employee assistance relief fund. The money will help provide emergency housing, food, water and other necessities to the commission’s employees affected by Hurricane Ian.

And the International Game Fish Association and Costa Sunglasses created the Worldwide Anglers Relief Fund to provide financial aid to charter captains, guides and outfitters in the wake of major natural disasters.

It’s estimated that Fort Myers Beach will take years to recover from Hurricane Ian.

It’s estimated that Fort Myers Beach will take years to recover from Hurricane Ian.

Assessing the Damage

According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, numbers related to damage and economic impact were not available as of mid-October. “With Florida being the top boating state, there is significant economic impact to protect,” says Ellen Bradley, chief brand officer for NMMA.

As of 2021, there were 988,000 recreational boats registered in Florida, with approximately 5% and 2% registered in hard-hit Lee and Charlotte counties, respectively. Ninety-eight percent of the boats registered in these counties are powerboats smaller than 40 feet, and Florida is ranked No. 1 for boat registrations and recreational boat spending. NMMA estimates annual spending on recreational boating in Florida at $5.4 billion. This was an increase of 3.5% compared with 2020.

One marina spared major damage on Pine Island was Bob & Annie’s Boatyard. “Compared to everyone else, we did really well,” says general manager Randy Fowlds. The primary bridges to and from the island were destroyed, and it took Fowlds 15 hours to get to the yard by boat after finding a ramp where he could launch. “Going down the canal, there were no markers. There were literally buildings that were missing.”

Older rack storage buildings that weren’t built to current, more stringent regulations did not fare well in Ian’s ferocious winds.

Older rack storage buildings that weren’t built to current, more stringent regulations did not fare well in Ian’s ferocious winds.

He says the boatyard is approximately nine miles from the center of the island, and that the string of downed utility poles stretched at least seven miles. “Every single utility pole had a truck on it,” Fowlds says. “We had power back by Friday.”

Another local facility, Monroe Canal Marina, came through the storm in relatively good shape. Along with Bobby & Annie’s, it became a meeting spot and drop-off point for relief efforts.

“It was nice being able to see the people gather up and help out,” Fowlds says. “We’re an island of just getting it done. I think all the marinas will open back up, because we’re needed.”

Bobby & Annie’s had 4 feet of water in the service shop, and all the toolboxes were flooded, but there was only 6 inches in the ship’s store because the doors held back most of the surge. Fowlds’ diesel generator was on site. It got knocked over and had to be righted, but it fired up. The Suzuki
outboard dealer lost about 40 engines, and the boats there came through with only cosmetic damage.

A Very Bad Storm

As happened with Hurricane Charley in 2004, Ian was initially predicted to make landfall farther north, in the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., area. With little notice, the track changed, and the storm turned inland, slamming into the barrier islands before moving near Fort Myers and Cape Coral.

Hal Needham, a marine-weather expert and founder of the Geotrek podcast, says Hurricane Ian stayed near the right edge of the cone that the National Hurricane Center predicted. Ian was a larger storm than Charley, so damage was varied based on what side of the rotation an area was on. Towns such as Placida, Gasparilla and Port Charlotte sustained wind damage, and the Coral Creek Airport near there recorded a gust of 206 mph. Comparatively, the Sanibel Harbour Yacht Club’s rack storage facility fared pretty well during Ian, but a 14-foot storm surge moved boats off the racks and destroyed offices on the bottom two floors.

Damage in the Fort Myers area was severe and widespread. 

Damage in the Fort Myers area was severe and widespread. 

“Surge causes the most destruction as far as damage and cost of life,” Needham says. “I saw places in the southern part of Fort Myers where the water was 8 or 9 feet above the ground, flowing very fast.”

Ingman Marine, which operates a handful of locations in the area where Ian struck, sustained the most damage at Gasparilla Marina. “At our main showroom, the roof blew off, all the glass windows are gone, and boats got damaged by flying debris,” says service manager Gene Kirk. The company also brought in temporary offices for its Port Charlotte facility that needs to be rebuilt.

Needham says that in the past 50 years, there were six major hurricanes (Category 3 or stronger) in South Florida. In the 50 years prior to that, there were 12. “Everyone thinks Florida is supposed to be sunshine and 80 degrees,” he says. “The exceptional, unusual thing was the 1970s or 1980s, when there were none.”

In Fort Myers Beach, the Coast Guard base of operations was destroyed, so the agency had to relocate to Horton Park and Boat Ramp in Cape Coral. Recreational boaters can no longer use the facility. Additionally, the Coast Guard recommended as of late October to stay off the water, saying many unseen dangers, including debris, lurked below the surface. Local police were attaching buoys to cars that were underwater. Also, with all the boats pushed around during the storm, many developed leaks of fluids like gasoline, diesel, oil and battery acid that can cause infections to anyone swimming.

A Can-Do Attitude

Nor-Tech, one of the largest employers in the Cape Coral area, had some building damage and lost power, according to co-owner Trond Schou. One building was up and running after about three days, while others were without electricity for about a week. The bigger problem for many of the company employees was their homes. “A boat floated into my pool, and there was a half of a deck in the yard,” Schou says.

Kyle Good (blue shirt) from the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association brought much-needed supplies to Gary Cullen of Cape Coral Marine.

Kyle Good (blue shirt) from the Southwest Florida Marine Industries Association brought much-needed supplies to Gary Cullen of Cape Coral Marine.

Nor-Tech coordinated donation efforts out of its offices. “It was amazing to see how the team came together. Some people you never expect to show up are there,” Schou says. “People were extremely appreciative of the help they got.”

At Sportboats, a Nor-Tech dealership in Fort Myers Beach, owner John Cray had boats on jackstands and trailers. “The water rose so high that they floated to the adjacent property next door,” he says. He hired a crane to recover the boats that were on the stands and hooked up to trailers, with trucks to get the boats back on Sportboats’ property.

Because they floated upright, the boats sustained minor cosmetic damage that Cray and his team fixed. None of the outboards were damaged. His facility, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. “Our building took two feet of water, and we lost our canopies,” Cray says. “We’re going to relocate.”

Fortunately, Cray had already purchased property about a mile farther inland. He says he was going to put up a modular building there. “The good news is that since the storm, we have sold boats,” Cray adds. “We got punched in the mouth, and we’re not going to lay down. We’re going to get up and fight back.”

Southwest Florida Yachts and the Florida Sailing & Cruising School were based in a marina in Cape Coral that sustained enough damage to shut it down for an estimated nine months. “Thankfully, the damage to our offices and boutique was minimal — primarily the flooring — but our records and office equipment were untouched,” says Barb Hansen, owner of the brokerage, schools and chandlery. Many boats in the school’s fleet need to be surveyed. “Several will not be returning to the fleet, others require repair, and all must be temporarily relocated to other moorings while the marina undergoes repair,” she says.

4_Yacht-basin

Another aspect of resuming operations is the completion of repairs at Southwest Florida cruising destinations. “Many of those popular stops also were hit by Ian, and it will take time for each of them to undergo repairs,” she says. “All of us want to return to operation as quickly as possible.”

One positive to come out of Hurricane Ian is that newer building regulations seem to be working. While rack storage buildings built 10 to 15 years ago sustained significant damage, those constructed more recently came through Hurricane Ian in good shape.

Bill Roof, co-owner and president of Roof and Rack, an Orlando, Fla.-based company that designs and constructs buildings for the marine industry, says the regulations are based on wind-load maps for the country. A city, municipality or county can then add to the requirements.

Wind-load maps for the Florida Keys require that a building be constructed to withstand 180-hp winds, while Fort Lauderdale is 175 mph and the map for the Gulf of Mexico is 170 mph. To meet the higher requirements, a building must be constructed with thicker metal sheeting on the outside. Internally, the framing is heavier and stronger when a higher wind load is specified.

A memorial along the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers honors those who lost their lilves in the storm. Total fatalities were estimated at more than 100.

A memorial along the Caloosahatchee River in downtown Fort Myers honors those who lost their lilves in the storm. Total fatalities were estimated at more than 100.

“You’re putting more steel in a building to hold it there during high winds,” Roof says. The requirements are reviewed every few years. After Ian, he expects that “they’ll be changing everything.”

The Offshore Powerboat Association is holding its world championships in Englewood, Fla., in November hoping that it will be an economic boost for the area. The SWFMIA postponed the Fort Myers Boat Show that was scheduled for mid-November, until January. By then, the association hopes, boat owners will be getting insurance settlement checks, so sales should be brisk.

“Everyone has that can-do attitude,” Good says. “It’s been very positive in the aftermath.” 

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.

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