Sandy aftermath: recovering from ‘total devastation’

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Superstorm Sandy upended just about every aspect of Steve Stavracos’ life. Not only did the Long Island, N.Y., marina owner suffer hurricane damage to his business, but Sandy also totaled his boat and flooded his home.

Superstorm Sandy left thousands of boats high and dry from New Jersey to New York and Connecticut.

“Between the three it has been pretty tough to swallow,” says Stavracos, the owner of Steve’s Marine Services in Amityville and Patchogue, N.Y., and a 33-foot Sea Ray express cruiser. “But if we don’t have a positive attitude we’re not going to get this back together.”

Marina owners, salvagers and insurance companies say Sandy stands out as the most devastating storm they’ve experienced, leaving a broad swath of destruction with a record-setting tidal surge that mangled docks, destroyed boats and wiped out entire marinas. Two other meteorological events contributed to Sandy’s size — perhaps the largest storm ever to form in the Atlantic Basin — and path of destruction, according to NASA. The late-season hurricane abruptly turned west off North Carolina because of a high pressure system to the north, and it teamed with a nor’easter as it made landfall in New Jersey Oct. 29.

“The high pressure … essentially was like a big roadblock, and that roadblock forced Sandy to make a left turn,” says J. Marshall Shepherd, president-elect of the American Meteorological Society and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia.

More than 65,000 recreational boats were destroyed or damaged in the storm, says BoatUS spokesman Scott Croft, with total losses in the area of $650 million. That figure eclipses the previous record of $500 million in boat losses from Hurricane Irene in 2011. The tri-state area took the brunt of the storm, Croft says. New York had $324 million in boat losses (35,000 boats), followed by New Jersey at $242 million (25,000 boats) and Connecticut (2,500 boats) at $23 million. Damage in other states totaled $60 million (6,000 boats), he says.

President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie together surveyed storm damage in the Garden State.

“We didn’t realize the magnitude of the storm,” says Stavracos, 55, whose Amityville site has 40 slips with boats from 20 to 46 feet. “What the newspapers are saying is correct: It was the perfect storm. It came in on a lunar high tide. It could not have been worse. In all my years in the business and as a boater, I’ve never seen such devastation.”

All of the major damage to Stavracos’ operation was at his facility in Amityville, which is west of Patchogue. Sandy ripped some of the marina’s 80 boats from their docks and pushed others off their blocks or jack stands ashore. About $100,000 worth of machinery was damaged, and the main marina building filled with 6 feet of water. Fuel also escaped from some boats and saturated portions of the 1.5-acre property.

Sandy also hit Stavracos’ house hard, flooding it with 4 feet of water, and may have destroyed his Sea Ray Sundancer. The storm knocked the express cruiser off its stands, and it flooded because the drain plug had been removed for winter layup. “I have a foot of water in the cabin, the generator is under water, and the fiberglass guy says I may have a stringer that separated from the hull,” he says.

A record tidal surge

Sandy caused more damage than Andrew, Katrina, Fran — “you name it,” Sea Tow founder and CEO Joe Frohnhoefer says. Twelve Sea Tow franchise areas that cover 560 miles of coastline were affected. “I have seen all the hurricanes going back to Hurricane Carol, which was in the ’50s,” he says. “It’s much wider spread, and a lot more boats have been damaged or destroyed. The wind damage was bad, but the water damage was 10 times worse.”

The tidal surge set a record in Lower Manhattan of 13.8 feet, nearly 4 feet above the previous high. At Kings Point, N.Y., the water rose to 14.4 feet, and it climbed to 13.3 feet in Sandy Hook, N.J. Tidal surge does the most damage in a hurricane, says BoatUS vice president of marine insurance Jim Holler, citing the group’s studies. “That’s not to say the wind is not a major factor; it builds the surge up,” he says.

Croft says BoatUS has assembled the largest catastrophe team in its history — 70 surveyors. “It’s just a lot of boats,” he says. “At many marinas every boat needs some level of recovery, from some needing to be put back on their stands to those that sank or a pile of boats in need of triage.”

Mantolocking was among the hardest hit areas of New Jersey.

Sandy hit hardest in central and northern New Jersey, New York City, especially Staten Island, and western portions of both Long Island Sound and Long Island’s north and south shores. “It’s total devastation of all the marinas,” says Tom Hurst, owner of TowBoatUS Manasquan and Budget Boat Towing and Salvage in Brick, N.J. “[At] MarineMax the boats broke through the buildings. Garden State Marina — all the boats washed away and went across the street into the golf courses.”

Hurst says many of the boats that were left in the water survived, but those that were pulled were lost. “They kept saying the tidal surge would be 6 to 8 feet, then it went to 8 to 10 feet, and when the storm was about to hit they were saying a 13-foot tidal surge,” Hurst says. “You could stand out in the road — this is at 2 o’clock in the morning — and literally watch the water come up. And it just didn’t stop. It just kept coming and coming, and people started running from their houses. We had women with children down the street screaming for help.”

A week after the storm, the outlook remained bleak for Hurst. “Layers upon layers of problems” were preventing progress in the salvage of boats in the Brick area, he says. “Things are the same or no better than they were a few days ago in our ‘ground zero’ area, and now we have this nor’easter coming,” Hurst said Nov. 5. (The nor’easter hit Nov. 7 and complicated the cleanup from Sandy.) “There’s just no infrastructure — everyone is just holding on to what 5 gallons of gas they have. We have gas rationing. We have no power, no Internet, and we don’t even know what is going on outside of our bubble here, which is pretty much Ocean and Monmouth counties.”

The damage in Great Kills Harbor, N.Y., was replayed throughout the tri-state area and southern New England. Estimates put Sandy's toll at more than 65,000 boats.

Hurst’s building was being used as the township’s fire and police headquarters. “I am feeding 200 people a day out of here,” he said.

The wreckage runs the gamut — from torn-up rooftops to entire marina facilities wiped out, according to marina insurer Maritime General Agency in Westbrook, Conn. “We’re hearing from some marina owners that their plans are not to rebuild, that they’re done,” company president Chris Pesce says. “Maybe when things normalize a bit, things will change.”

That may take months, Frohnhoefer says, but the job is well under way. “We’re getting boats back on the hard and back on jack stands,” he says. “I think it is going to be six to eight weeks before we start to see any daylight, though.” Sea Tow had completed the salvage and cleanup of three marinas in the Atlantic City area, he says.

Prepared but to no avail

Heavily damaged homes in Bay Head, N.J., reveal Sandy's fury.

The day after the storm, the crew at Steve’s worked to get their machinery — the Travelift, forklifts and service vans — up and running, Stavracos says. “On the second day a crane came in and started lifting boats, and we’ve been using our equipment to put them where they belong so the yard is straightened out somewhat,” he says.

Many boats had been put up for the winter with their drains unplugged, which ultimately led to their demise. “They got caught by the tides and started to float and then started taking on water and sank,” Frohnhoefer says.

Boaters did a good job of preparing for Sandy, but their efforts in many cases were to no avail, Holler says. “People took the precaution of having their boats hauled and put ashore on blocks, on cradles or jack stands,” Holler says. “Unfortunately, their marina was not very high above sea level, and when the surge came in, the water just took those boats and deposited them in a big pile in the parking lot. We have people who have gone to their marina to ascertain the damage and found the marina was no longer there.”

Many marina owners were requesting that boat owners stay away from the marinas because of safety concerns, such as spilled fuel. “And they don’t want people coming into a marina and accidentally smoking a cigarette or climbing on a pile of boats and getting hurt,” Croft says.

Marina operators and salvagers have corralled and blocked hundreds of boats, but those that ended up in piles have challenged salvagers, Croft says. “It’s like a game of pick-up sticks, where you try to pull out the boats from a pile and cause the least amount of damage,” he says.

Whiskey Island Marina in Cleveland and other inland areas were dealt a blow as the storm continued its assault away from the coast.

Boats still sat in dangerous places, such as on or around power lines, Croft says, citing Staten Island. “It’s slow going for customers, compared to other storms, because the priorities are damaged homes and infrastructure, not boats, and that’s understandable,” Croft says. The salvage and surveying of boats could carry on well into December and the new year, he says.

Salvagers have received some grief from residents with damaged homes. “There’s anger from residents of these areas, not necessarily toward the boating industry,” Croft says. “They’re frustrated because their homes are damaged, and they see recovery efforts of boats, and they don’t understand why.”

January 2013 issue