When Scott Burt pulled into the parking lot at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Panama City Beach, Fla., after Hurricane Michael last October, he saw crews from NBC, CNN and The Weather Channel. They all had set up remote studios to report on the damage from the storm, which made landfall as a Category 5 with winds stronger than 150 mph.
The collapsed mega-barn at Pirate’s Cove was so visually arresting that it became the face of the region’s wreckage. “We’ve been through a lot of blows and surges, and written a lot of hurricane plans, but for a Cat 5, you just can’t prepare,” says Burt, managing partner of North Lagoon Partners, which owns Pirate’s Cove and the barn that held 425 boats in racks. “It just imploded, and it was shocking, the amount of damage.”
An older, second facility, which staff called the “legacy” barn, sustained even more damage. “The wind picked it up and dropped it right back down on the ground,” Burt says. “There’s no question it was hit by some form of a tornado.”
Across Grand Lagoon in Panama City Beach, Lighthouse Marina — also owned by North Lagoon Partners — was newer and fared better. A wall caved in but was rebuilt. Today, both marinas are back up and running, as are numerous others from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico that severe storms have damaged in recent years. Michael, the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States as a Category 5 storm since Hurricane Andrew in 1992, was responsible for 16 deaths and about $25 billion in damage. It was the fourth Category 5 hurricane to make landfall on record. (The Labor Day Hurricane in 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969 are the others.)
Although it was rated as a Category 2, Hurricane Florence caused an estimated 54 deaths and $24 billion in the Carolinas alone. Burt and others say that while those marinas continue to rebuild, they are taking stock of what held up and what didn’t, as well as applying lessons learned, no matter whether the marinas are in Florida, North Carolina or Texas.
When Hurricane Florence hit New Bern, N.C., last year, there were 185 boats in the slips at Grand Marina. The storm surge maxed out at 12 feet, but most of the pilings were at least 13 feet tall, and the wave attenuation wall that had been installed 20 years ago did its job. Only four boats sank. “The surge hit the wall at about 6 feet and came out at 1 foot,” says Jeremy McConnell, dockmaster at the marina.
The marina’s G dock is 712 feet long, and the wall that marina company Meeco Sullivan designed is constructed from the center of F dock to where it connects to G dock. The surge fed water right into the wall, which was the plan. It worked.
But that infrastructure was only one reason so many boats were spared. Five days before Florence hit, Grand Marina had 220 boats from 20 to 65 feet in the marina. Some owners hauled them out while McConnell and his crew got to work. “We were pretty much given a four- to five-day notice,” he says. “We went to every single boat throughout the marina and worked with the owners and four-post-tied each boat. The hard work that went in prior to the storm made quite a difference.”
McConnell contacted the city and had the electricity to the docks shut down, and he disconnected water fittings. There was some damage to the marina’s water lines, but it was minimal.
Although most of the docks at the marina came through the storm in good shape, McConnell says, Meeco Sullivan has since designed new docks and pilings from the center of F dock to G dock, and Crofton Industries of Portsmouth, Va., will be doing the update.
Harvey’s Initial Punch
Though most people remember the nearly 4 feet of rain that inundated the Houston area when Hurricane Harvey lingered over Texas, its winds were clocked around 150 mph near Cove Harbor Yacht Club and Boathouse Resort in Rockport when the storm first hit. “You could see where our lift stations were picked up and thrown out in the middle of the bay,” says Heidi Duplechian, the marina’s general manager.
She says the floating docks held up well, the roofs came off the covered slips, and 365 boats had to be extracted from the drystack buildings. Roof and Rack constructed the buildings, one of which was rated for 100-mph winds and the other for 130 mph. Cove Harbor has since had Roof and Rack erect new buildings rated for 150 mph on the same slab. “From beginning to end, we opened the first building in a year,” Duplechian says.
About 200 of the 365 boats were saved, and Duplechian says the only delays in the reconstruction came because the marina had to get permission from boat owners to move the vessels to get forklifts out of the buildings.
The biggest lesson the management team learned was how it needs to handle insurance. Duplechian says the facility had to deal with 36 insurance companies. “We had clients who were underinsured and who let their insurance lapse,” she says. “We’re making sure they carry additional insurance and that we’re additionally insured.”
At Redfish Bay Boat House in nearby Aransas Pass, Texas, general manager Mike Moore says there was dock damage, but the boats inside the rack storage building were unscathed. “Not one boat was hurt,” he says. The outer skin on the north side of the building and a couple of panels on the south side peeled off, but otherwise the buildings that Ohio-based Golden Giant manufactured to Category 4 standards stood up well.
The marina has 1,500 linear feet on Aransas Pass, plus 35 slips and a pavilion that can accommodate 200 people. As an indication of how strong the winds were, an 8-by-14-foot barbecue stand that was bolted into concrete is gone. Moore has no idea where it wound up. And a flying sign crushed an 18-by-22-foot storage building.
The key to the rack storage building holding up was a large, tube-like anchor that secures the doors. The anchor sits in the middle of the doors and bolts into the concrete to hold them closed. “When that door didn’t open up, it stopped major damage,” Moore says. To provide additional assurance that the door would stay closed, marina employees parked a forklift with forks against the door.
In the future, Moore says, the marina will offer local boat owners the opportunity to pay to store their boats inside the building, even if they’re not slip customers. “We’re going to put out an ad letting people know they can make a reservation with a deposit,” he says. “There were a lot of people we had to turn down.”
And even with the overall success of the company’s hurricane plan, Moore says he and the office manager are looking at ways to improve it. “We’re modifying our hurricane preparedness plan to get ready for the next time, but I give us a B-plus for how we did,” he says. “We did everything we could to protect our customers’ investments.”
Back in Florida, Burt says that in the future, he will have a satellite phone prior to a large storm’s arrival. The crew from The Weather Channel let him borrow one, and it made a huge difference in contacting business partners to get started on recovery efforts.
One discovery he made was almost by accident. The OnStar vehicle communication system in his truck was operational through AT&T, so Burt used it as a hotspot to send information to his company’s social media director, who is based in Mobile, Ala. The employee posted updates to social media to keep customers informed. “Customers were freaking out,” he says. “We posted to social media over and over again, and everybody was appreciative of that.”
When owners showed up to check on a boat, marina staff accompanied him or her to see the vessel or take a photo, to provide some peace of mind. In return, the customers surprised Burt. “I’ll never forget how gracious our customers were,” he says. “The gifts and truckloads of supplies they brought in — hot meals, you name it — it was amazing.”
Another lesson learned was that the crew at Pirate’s Cove overpacked one of its two drystack buildings by offering storage in the aisles, and by moving trucks inside. The number of boats and trucks made it difficult to get inside with cranes when it was time to remove debris. “It involved carefully plucking and cutting, and boats and beams, and trying to not have the barn fall in during the process,” he says, adding that he won’t offer storm storage in the future.
Burt estimates that damage totals were close to $7 million, and that about 130 boats sustained damage. “We had a lot of boats with significant damage in our older legacy barn, but in the newer mega-barn, I only had to total one boat,” he says, adding that Lighthouse’s barn was back within two months and the mega-barn at Pirate’s Cove was at 95 percent capacity this past July. “If you drove by it today, you would have no idea that it had been nearly destroyed,” Burt says.
The best thing he had in place to help with storm recovery, Burt says, was strong relationships. “If you’ve got great relationships and people know you pay your bills, it will save your backside,” he says. “Everything was done in that parking lot on a handshake basis. I’m not being sued. I didn’t sign a single contract in the entire process.”
A little foresight also helped. Burt runs Coastal Marina Management, which runs seven marinas in the Southeast. He bundles all the insurance coverage through a master policy to maximize purchasing power. “During the good years, we would purchase more insurance. I bought stuff we never had before, like business interruption insurance,” Burt says. “We kept ramping it up and ramping it, and I got lucky.”
When a representative from his insurance company, Illinois-based RLI Corp., arrived at Pirate’s Cove and Lighthouse marinas, he asked how Burt was doing on cash. “We were well into the process, and he knew we were going to blow through money,” Burt says. “He knew he had to keep me liquid. He said, ‘I’m going to send you a million dollars,’ and the next week he wired it.” Even with all the damage, the company renewed both marinas’ insurance policies with what Burt called a “very modest rate increase.”
Not all marinas in the area came through the storm as well. City-owned Panama City Marina is a total loss that will take two years to get back up and running, according to a worker who asked not to be identified. “If more boaters had removed their boats like they’re supposed to, quite possibly there would have been less damage, but we had 100 boats in there,” he says.
He estimates that there were 80 boats under water after the storm, plus four docks on the incoming-wind side of the marina. “What we had basically was a 50-mile-wide tornado,” he says.
There are still a handful of boats on the bottom, serving as a reminder about the importance of storm preparations for the future.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.