On a bad day, a BoatUS Catastrophe Field Team worker can experience everything from a boat stuck 20 feet up a tree to being threatened at gunpoint. Mike McCook has plenty of such stories after more than 30 years of coordinating response efforts for the CAT Team.
McCook began boating as a child with his family in New Jersey. When he joined the Air Force, he was assigned to boats. “I didn’t know the Air Force had boats, but that’s where I wound up,” he says with a laugh. He then worked at marinas for a few years before joining the BoatUS claims department in 1973, eventually becoming claims manager.
In 1982, McCook went into business for himself as a surveyor and claims investigator, launching M.J. McCook Associates. Today, he works with BoatUS and other insurance companies, largely handling damage surveys, litigation and his CAT Team duties. In his free time, McCook builds small wooden boats that he often donates to charities for sale. He is also a woodturner. “The creative side of these efforts is great for my sanity,” he says.
You’ve seen a lot of hurricanes in 30-plus years with the BoatUS CAT Team.
My first hurricane was Alicia in ’83, which was in Texas. There have been 30 or 40 hurricanes over those years. I’m hired by BoatUS as a consultant to act as the director of field operations for the CAT Team, which puts me in an overview position of the surveyors we hire to take care of claims for the members it insures.
What does the CAT Team do, and what’s your role?
We respond to large marina fires on a smaller scale, or ice storms in the Midwest, but generally speaking, the CAT Team responds to hurricanes. These are disaster areas with hundreds if not thousands of boats that are damaged or require salvage. Our responsibility is to get into the area as soon as we can safely, and to work with the policy holders and members to get their boats either salvaged if necessary, or get a damage appraisal done and some money in their pockets so they can get a new boat.
How brutal is the landscape after a named storm hits?
Getting into a storm-damaged area is an effort in itself because often there are little or no accommodations, there may not be power, and there may be no food. We get in as close as we can to get accommodations. That may be 150 miles away, and until we can get closer, we just have to hoof it in. We work with the local authorities to make sure we’re allowed to go in, and they generally view BoatUS as a responsible organization because we’ve been doing it so long. Although we’re not responding to injured people, we certainly are first responders in getting money to people so they can move on. Or if necessary, getting a boat sitting in the middle of a highway cleared.
What have been the most memorable storms?
Hurricane Alicia stands out, not because of the severity but because it was my first one and the very first CAT Team: myself, the CEO of the company and the claims adjustor. The benefit of the CAT Team was so clear from that first storm. The whole concept stuck.
From the standpoint of human devastation, Hurricane Andrew stands out. I had lived in Homestead, Fla., though I hadn’t been there for about five years. Going through that area and seeing the almost complete destruction — I often think about that.
It was really shaking, how bad that was. I wish other people could see it so they would put more serious effort into protecting themselves.
Pictures can’t always fully convey the severity of a storm’s devastation.
Some of the pictures are, Oh my gosh, that boat is upside down in a tree, and it’s 47 feet long. It’s not the 47-foot boat that’s upside down in a tree — it’s the 350 other boats within three blocks that are in people’s swimming pools and living rooms. It’s difficult to explain the severity of it.
Because we’re dealing with boats, I think people look at the CAT Team as not being as involved in people’s personal lives, and that’s so untrue. Every member of the CAT Team has stories about people they’ve helped — giving them a case of water or driving them to the police station. We’ve had guys who have given people clothes out of their suitcases.
Being immersed in that destruction must take a toll.
We’re very supportive of each other. We have a meeting in the morning so people can talk about their issues with claims, and we also try to meet for dinner, or get together and relax in the evening. That helps a lot. There’s a lot of gray hair on the team. That experience helps us work with the younger folks — and we’re trying to get younger people on the team — so they can deal with those stressful situations.
You feel so darn bad. A guy has no house, no food, no clothes, and his boat is upside down in the slip. We’re there to deal with the boat, and yet they haven’t heard from other insurance companies on the house or the car. We sometimes struggle with not being able to help them more. Our guys have been known to make a phone call to an adjuster at another company if we happen to know somebody there.
And a lot of people are attached to their boats. It could’ve been in the family for a long time, or something they waited their whole lives to get. A boat’s an important thing to a lot of people, including me.
What’s the best way to protect a boat in a storm?
The best thing you can do is get the boat out of the water and get it to a marina where you can tie it down. If it has to stay in the water, don’t just forget about it; go down and remove sails, remove the canvas, do all those things outlined in various brochures.
There are many sources for weather information, yet there are always people who wait until it’s too late to prepare.
I think people become complacent because we have such ability to predict storms and see where they are without necessarily knowing where they’re going to hit. People in North Carolina did a magnificent job preparing for Hurricane Matthew. They got boats out of the water and put them in fields where trees wouldn’t fall on them. They took it seriously. As opposed to Maryland, Virginia and D.C. back in Gloria.
Or worse, Sandy. How many hurricanes has New Jersey had in the past 20 years? Not very many, so it hit people without firsthand experience. Some people got their boats out and then pulled the drain plug, but the tides came in so high that the boats sank in their cradles or blocks. That said, if they put the drain plug in, it floated away. There’s only so much you can do. You can’t protect against everything.
Didn’t boats in the water with floating docks and tall pilings fare better during Sandy?
That might be true, but studies show that pulling your boat is the best thing to do. The second is to have it at a floating dock with very high pilings. The third is to have it on a mooring, and the fourth is to have it at a regular dock.
Some marinas require you to be out 48 hours before a hurricane has been predicted to make landfall. There are hurricane clubs that you can prepay to have your boat taken care of in the event of a named storm; most haul the boat.
I think the challenge with Sandy was the low-lying storage areas. People tried to put boats on high ground, but that was just 6 or 8 feet above standard high tide, so that caused a lot of problems for New Jersey.
In Florida, some boat owners had a difficult time getting out before Irma because bridges had closed, there is limited storage in South Florida, and the storm wound up hitting the west coast after being predicted to make landfall on the east coast.
I think those problems probably go into the thought process of insurance companies that no longer underwrite boats in those areas. If it’s too unpredictable or people can’t get their boats out of the water, that’s a situation that can spin into a crisis — the crisis being that you can’t get insurance. If you can’t get insurance, you can’t get financing, and if you can’t get financing, you can’t get a boat. It’s a cycle that affects the industry overall. The industry as a whole might need to be careful about decisions that negatively affect that cycle to the point that insurance becomes prohibitively expensive, because the long-term impact of that — wow.
What are some of the challenges with this kind of work?
It’s amazing where boats wind up — on top of pilings 15 feet in the air, on football fields. Who would’ve expected a boat to wind up in a football field 800 yards from the water behind a 6½-foot-high brick wall?
By and large, the people are cooperative, but some are upset because the storm damaged their house and are looking for every means possible to collect money. Some don’t have property insurance, so they’ll try to hold the boat hostage. Certain areas are worse than others in that regard, but no matter where the storm is, we always have boats where property owners are not going to be cooperative.
What are some of the most unusual things you’ve seen?
After Hurricane Ike in Houston, people took it upon themselves to protect their boats at a yacht club, including this one gentleman who was in overalls, with no shoes or shirt and a shotgun. He challenged our guy that if he stepped foot on the property, he was going to be full of buckshot.
That guy and our surveyor wound up being the best of friends. You could look at the guy’s six-pack, and if he only had one or two empties, that was a good time to approach him. Or look in the trash can to see how many empties were in there.
After the CAT Team was finished, I put the surveyor together with the town manager, and he oversaw the cleanup of the entire marina for all the insurance companies. It was interesting to go from being threatened with a shotgun to being buddies and, eventually, cleaning up the whole marina. That was a surveyor who’s no longer with us, unfortunately, Jim Wood. He’s a legend.
Wasn’t there a marina that refused entry to residents and insurance companies after Harvey?
It was absolutely ridiculous, and it was all about folks wanting to make money from other people’s disasters. People couldn’t get their boats for months. Fortunately, it was an isolated situation. The problem is, we don’t hear about the marina workers who stayed there through the storm and helped; we hear about the people who wouldn’t let people get their boats until they paid some exorbitant amount. So let’s try to put in a good word for the people who are helpful.
By and large, the industry is helpful. Most companies charge a fair price to haul out before and after storms. I’ve experienced situations where some are charging $100 a foot to haul out when a hurricane is coming instead of $10 a foot, but it’s rare.
How do you deal with people whose property has been damaged by a boat?
The biggest problems are generally property owners. In Marathon, Fla., after Hurricane Irma, there were people whose boats washed up on beaches, and people helped get the boats back in the water and gave [the owners] food. There were others who threatened lawsuits because a boat washed up on their property. For most people, it’s a knee-jerk reaction, and after coming by a few times and chatting, they cooperate.
Most seawalls and docks are not insured. If a boat is properly moored, tied or even hauled out and blocked ashore — if it washes out and takes one boat or 17 boats, people expect to be compensated. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way because the boat owner didn’t do anything wrong. It’s sometimes difficult to explain that. There are times when that’s not the case, but just because the boat happens to hit someone’s property doesn’t mean they’re responsible for it.
The CAT Team investigates each of those allegations with the legal team, adjustors and engineers, if necessary. I saw that more than anywhere in the Keys after Irma. We do what we can to leave everybody feeling as good as possible.
What are some positive results you’ve seen from storms?
The creation of hurricane clubs has been positive. The improvement of storage facilities in marinas, and tie-down straps, has been positive. More floating docks — not only are they more convenient for the boat owner, but they are also to some degree safer for boats.
We are obviously confronted with weather patterns that appear to have more storms, tropical and subtropical, as well as ice, and so on. The industry has increased standards and regulations. You don’t find substandard floating, covered docks anymore, or boatels. They’re built better now, and you can check to see the level it’s rated for. If it was built in 1968, maybe you don’t want to put your boat there. But if it was built in 2019, the rules in various jurisdictions are such that it’s going to withstand a Category 2 or 3 storm.
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.