Three years after Hurricane Sandy took a fateful left turn in the Atlantic and plowed into the New Jersey coast, marinas and boatyards are still recovering from the physical and financial hammering they were dealt. Waterfront communities along the Gulf Coast, Florida and north to the Carolinas routinely have to brace for tropical storms and hurricanes, but apart from some nasty nor’easters, the New York tri-state area, which includes New Jersey and Connecticut, had been spared the brunt of a significant tropical storm since Hurricane Bob in 1991.
The late forecast of Sandy’s change in course gave marinas only a few days to prepare, knowing the storm was heading right for them. Some had begun their winter haulouts, with the boating season over for most of their customers as Halloween approached, and many are second- or third-generation owners and have a history of weathering storms.
Sandy was worse than expected when it made landfall Oct. 29 (just north of Atlantic City), yet most marinas in the strike zone managed to open and operate to some degree the following season, even if many Jersey boaters took the 2013 season off by choice or, more likely, necessity.
“Sandy is still here,” says Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey. “You can see it in rebuilding everywhere. Not just in our industry, but residential and other businesses. We see Hurricane Sandy everywhere. But each year it gets further away, and we see more boaters getting out there and our marinas taking another step toward normal.”
Insurance money, loans, private financing and $50,000 grants from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development administered by the state have fueled the comeback. So have smaller federal fisheries grants administered by the state Department of Environmental Protection and herculean efforts by the business owners, their staffs and an impressive number of volunteers.
Of course, little involving the federal government is efficient, and Danko says funding and grant issues have dominated her time since the storm. “Assisting MTANJ members through the paperwork, red tape and stress of it all was not easy, and I probably told almost everyone that called me to stick with it and keep moving forward,” she says, noting that many now thank her for encouraging them to keep going.
“Support and, specifically, funding for businesses impacted by storms like Sandy is something I hope everyone spends more time talking about because a lot needs to be fixed,” she says.
BoatUS responded by dispatching its CAT (for catastrophe) team. “Some of the marinas we visited, they didn’t know where to start,” says Beth A. Leonard, BoatUS director of technical services. “They had nothing to work with. Their equipment was submerged, boats were tangled and some did not have real catastrophe insurance. It was amazing that in a few days they were making progress, generators running, and moving one boat at a time.”
Some marinas and yards have yet to or never will reopen, and the Jersey Shore remains a very active construction site, with waterfront homes still in the process of repair or replacement. Many of the houses in low-lying waterfront areas now stand on stilts 10 feet or more above the ground.
Soundings Trade Only visited several New Jersey sites in August to gauge their recovery.
A destructive surge
New Jersey and the New York City borough of Staten Island took the worst lashing from Sandy, the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history (trailing only Katrina). When it hit, the storm had weakened from an offshore peak as a Category 3 hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds. That weakening, coupled with the coastline’s topography and a rising tide when it made landfall, made Sandy more of a surge than a wind event. This led to several breaches along the Jersey shore — the worst at the Mantoloking Bridge — which produced fast-moving rivers of sea water that overtook all in their path.
“We had parts of about 12 houses float onto our property,” says Tom Beaton, whose grandfather founded the David Beaton & Sons boatyard in Brick, N.J., in the 1930s. The Beaton yard on Barnegat Bay was in the path of the water from the Mantoloking breach — “ground zero” for the most damage, he says.
“The deepest water ever at our yard was back in 1950, when there was three feet in our carpentry shop,” Beaton says. Using that as a guide, “we would elevate all important equipment up 4 feet” in advance of any major storm, he says. “This time it was 5-1/2 feet, and everything was destroyed. Our ship’s store was wrecked, parts of roofs were torn off, windows shattered, all of our wiring was fried, and machinery motors were ruined.
“We were always a rickety old boatyard, but we were more rickety,” he adds.
Beaton says he never tallied the damage cost, but he estimates it was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
‘What do you fix first?’
Beaton’s damage estimate is small in comparison to the battering inflicted on Fred Brueggemann’s Key Harbor Yacht Sales & Marina about 25 miles south in Waretown, N.J.
Brueggemann has owned the dealership and full-service marina for 11 years. He also leases space on the 22-acre property on Barnegat Bay to a waterfront restaurant and a state police marine division unit. It was the state police who ordered Brueggemann and crew to evacuate the property as the surge was enveloping his docks and 270 slips. He estimates that 150 boats were still in the water.
“We just turned off the electricity and left,” he says.
The next morning, the streets were flooded, and boats from a neighboring yard had floated onto the road and blocked his access. It wasn’t until that evening that he made his way back to his property.
“I expected it all to be gone,” Brueggemann says. Instead, the concrete and steel building was still standing, but the front bulkhead and concrete sidewalk were in tatters, the in-ground pool was collapsed, and the tennis court was “washed away,” along with his fuel dock. When the bulkheads failed, all of the internal wiring was torn away and PVC water pipes snapped.
At Key Harbor’s Mantoloking yard, about 40 boats were scattered around the neighborhood, and Brueggemann had 6 feet of water in his showroom. That facility has yet to reopen.
“It was just a question of what do you fix first,” he says, “but I never even thought about not coming back. The thought never crossed my mind.”
He ballparks the total damage at $1.8 million and says he retrieved about one-third of that amount from multiple insurance policies. Today he estimates that he’s 90 percent back to normal at his main yard.
To the north, at Lockwood Boat Works in South Amboy on Raritan Bay — just a few miles southwest of Staten Island — Sandy delivered an estimated $2.2 million damage to the 69-year-old family-owned marina and yard.
The property is unusual in that it’s built on three levels, with the main office and ships store high on Route 35, a winter storage area at the base of a sharp slope toward the water and the marina and service area at water level.
“We had never had more than a few inches in the service shed in our history,” says co-owner Terry Lockwood. “We sandbagged the bay door, but it didn’t matter. We still had 5 feet of water inside.”
On a U-shaped floating dock that runs parallel to the coast, all 37 slips were destroyed when the dock rose above its pilings and floated off into marshland with boats still attached with double lines. A long second floating dock that juts out onto the water with 51 slips preserved its boats, but about 40 percent of the dock was damaged. A 10,000-gallon fuel tank was lifted by the surge, and it floated toward the service shed.
“We had boats floating on our yard from other marinas. There were boats all over the property. I called it pick-up sticks. You had to have a sense of humor,” says Lockwood. “We had no power, no phones — we had the business line calls forwarded to cellphones, so we communicated with our customers through Facebook and cellphones,” she says.
The family also owns a neighboring yard, Old Spye Marina, where about half of the 43 slips were destroyed. In all, 32 boats were totaled at the Lockwood facilities, and more than 100 had damage that was repairable.
“We just put our last boat that we fixed back in the water about a month ago,” Lockwood said in August — 34 months after the storm. “They say it was a 1,000-year storm. Fine — I’ll be dead by the time the next one comes.”
Back in Brick, about two miles southwest of the Mantoloking breach, Skip Harrison’s grandfather founded Baywood Marina in 1965. The working-class, mom-and-pop facility is favored for its protection from wind and swells by a canal system that leads to Silver Bay.
“We’ve never had water in the building or even over the bulkhead,” Harrison says. Today he has a strip of blue painter’s tape across the glass front door of the office — 32 inches above the floor — as a high-water mark.
There is no high ground on the property, so all of the heavy equipment and machinery was inoperable, and the only electricity for the next 18 days would come from generators. Like the other facilities, boats were scattered around and off the property.
“They told us it would be the worst we’ve ever seen, but it was far beyond anything I expected,” he says. “You’re trying to keep your facility running and then trying to keep your customers happy.”
Harrison says his customers were mostly understanding of the cleanup job his crew of about 14 was facing. He estimates about $750,000 in damage and — job by job over the past three years — he’s “about 75 to 80 percent back to normal.”
Many of his customers took the 2013 season off, he says, but most have returned.
Staten Island smackdown
When Sandy steamed northward, she plowed into Staten Island’s south shore, where most of the borough’s dozen or so marinas and yacht clubs are, particularly in Great Kills Harbor, which small boats use as an anchorage because it is shallow and protected.
“We probably got hit harder than anyone [on Staten Island],” says Ed Corbo, owner of Mansion Marina, which has 217 slips on Great Kills Harbor. “We had 180 to 190 boats in the water, and we lost 110 to 120. About 65 percent of our boats were destroyed.”
Corbo says he had 6 feet of water in his office and worked out of a trailer for nearly three years. He moved back into his building this spring.“We really didn’t touch the office for two years, since it makes no money,” he says. “In this business you need docks to make money.”
Coupled with “some insurance money,” Corbo estimates that he and two silent partners put at least $1 million into rebuilding the marina he purchased in 2004. “I don’t even want to count anymore,” he says. “I had my whole life savings in this place. This is how I feed my family; this is my career,” he says. “It was either rebuild or get out. I didn’t want to get out.”
Instead he and his small staff put their backs into rebuilding. With a background in heavy construction, Corbo bought $200,000 of equipment, including a crane and a bucket loader. “It was either that or hire someone and watch them fix my place. It was survival,” he says. “We worked seven days a week for two years straight,” he says. “Five months later, we had half of the slips open.”
They ripped out the 400-foot fixed dock that was torn up and replaced it with floating docks. It wasn’t until the fall of 2014 — two years after the storm — that the marina had the fuel dock fixed.
Some customers slowly returned, but others, he says, “took their insurance check and got out of boating.”
This season, Mansion had 130 slips, or about 60 percent, filled. “The numbers are still quite a bit off from the day of the storm, but it’s a better place than it was,” says Corbo. “We lowered our prices and now have cheaper dock fees than when I bought it 10 years ago. It used to be you couldn’t get a slip on Staten Island; there was a waiting list. Now there’s a glut of slips. Everyone’s got open spots. It is what it is.”
Corbo concedes that running his business “is going to be a struggle for a long time” and mentions a friend who owned a marina in Homestead, Fla., when Hurricane Andrew devastated the area in 1992.
“He said it took them five years before they were back to normal. There’s a question in my mind about whether we’ll ever get to normal,” Corbo says.
As did every owner Trade Only spoke with, Corbo praised his staff for sticking with him in rebuilding the facility, many of whom also were grappling with storm damage to their homes.
One clear result that emerged from Sandy is that up and down the 400 miles of destruction along the Jersey Shore — for this storm, at least — boats in the water fared better than those on the hard.
“At Lockwood Boat Works, 27 boats on land were totaled, while five boats in the water were totaled,” says Terry Lockwood. More than 100 boats in the yard (in the water and on land) had damage that was repairable. “Ninety-eight boats hauled prior to the storm floated off their jack stands; 80 of them stayed on the property, while 18 floated into neighboring marshland.”
At Key Harbor Marina’s Mantoloking yard, all 40 boats were pulled from their slips, lifted and scattered around the neighborhood.
Brueggemann says the boats at his main facility, most of which were still in the water, were banged around in their slips, but survived. “For us, being in-water was right for this storm,” he says.
At Baywood Marina, which has 200 slips, owner Skip Harrison was trying to dissuade customers who insisted their boats be hauled. It was a losing argument in many cases, and only 30 boats remained in the water when the storm hit.
“The majority of boats in the water fared well,” Harrison says. “The ones on stands did not.”
At the Lockwood yard in South Amboy “every boat that was in the lower yard had to be reset, even if it stayed on its jacks,” Lockwood says.
Leonard says BoatUS CAT team surveys revealed that boats on floating docks tended to be either fine or destroyed, but “a lot of those boats on the hard that got carried away suffered prop damage and scuff, but they were fixable.”
Leonard says one priority for marinas should be to prepare a plan to contain boats in the marina and on the premises, noting the trend in Florida to strap the boats down on jacks.
“And in a surge event, we recommend leaving the drain plug in; that was a lesson learned,” she says, adding that the team plans to revisit the Sandy-damaged marinas next year to see what their hurricane plans are.
Individual marinas are taking steps on their own. Prior to the storm, Lockwood Boat Works had 40-foot pilings to secure its floating docks. Today they are 50 feet. The crew built a platform to raise the fuel pump 3 feet higher.
“At this height, the pump would be under water during another ‘superstorm’ like Sandy, but not during our typical nor’easters,” says Lockwood. “We are also adding clean fill to alleviate the puddling of rain water.”
At Baywood Marina, Harrison used Sandy’s mess to improve his facility. “Instead of just repairing the water-damaged area, we gutted the entire interior of the building so we could make better use of the space and better prepare the building in case of another event,” he says.
That entailed installing about 30 flood vents, which will allow water in and out of the building to prevent pooling inside and the stress it puts on the walls. Pressure-treated lumber was used for the studs, and the insulation is now solid Styrofoam.
“We used a fire-retardant and waterproof gypsum, with gaps on the bottom and top, so the studs and insulation can be dried out if it gets wet,” Harrison says. “All of the wiring was replaced with wire that does not have paper, to prevent wicking of the water to the breakers. Plus, we moved all of the outlets above the new high-water mark.”
His new storm plan also involves getting newer, higher-end boats, along with the heavy machinery, off the property to higher ground.
“I learned a lot from that experience,” Harrison says. “But nothing I’d want to use again.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue.