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Summit outlines hurricane strategy

Facing the next hurricane season, Palm Beach County marinas plan to be better prepared


Facing the next hurricane season, Palm Beach County marinas plan to be better prepared

Blasted by two hurricanes in 2004, Palm Beach County, Fla.’s marine interests gathered for a May summit to discuss strategies for protecting boats, docks and marinas this hurricane season.

Facing another summer and fall of higher-than-average tropical storm activity, the 80 attendees identified planning, preparation and coordination as top priorities for boat owners, marinas, boatyards and government agencies this hurricane season.

“Whatever plans we had in the past, we couldn’t find them last year,” said David Roach, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District and the summit’s chairman. Roach said Palm Beach boaters and marine businesses had become complacent after many hurricane-free years and thought they were immune from them until Frances and Jean hit the region with a one-two punch last year.

“It’s time for us to dust off our plans, coordinate them ahead of time, take lessons we learned in 2004 and make those plans better,” he said.

Good hurricane holes are hard to find in Palm Beach County, so boaters in search of refuge for their vessel often end up wandering from marina to marina before a hurricane looking for short-term haulout and upland storage, or they refuse to move their boat out of its marina slip because there’s no place else for it to go. This causes big problems for marina owners because boats stored in their slip often cause catastrophic dock damage during a hurricane.

Roach said attendees thought government entities should consider opening up parks for boat storage before a hurricane. Marinas could supply — for a fee — a crane or forklift, jackstands and tie-downs to haul and store boats at the parks. After the storm, the parks could be used as staging areas for salvaged boats. Roach said marina owners also should consider laying steel hurricane cables on the bottom in waters near their facility. As a hurricane approaches, they would attach moorings to those cables and move boats out of their slips onto the moorings to spare damage to both their docks and the boats.

Roach said Florida’s several-hundred-thousand absentee boaters who keep their boats in Florida but live elsewhere also are a problem because they aren’t in town to secure their boats before a hurricane. “Marina owners are pretty emphatic that they shouldn’t be left holding the bag for these absentee owners and suffer damage to their facilities because these guys haven’t taken any measures to secure their boat,” he said.

Roach said this appears to be a contractual and insurance issue. Marina owners and insurers need a strong contractual provision requiring absentee owners to have a hurricane plan and someone available — maybe on retainer — to look after the boat during hurricane season.

A hurricane guide for boaters also drew strong support at the summit. “There are not many so-called hurricane holes left in the world,” Roach said. “We need to identify those to the extent that they are available,” and distribute the information to boaters.

He said boaters also need to be educated about hurricane protection. “It’s not a good idea to anchor out in a big body of water unless you have big anchors and very strong cleats,” Roach said. “You need to look for [narrow waterways] where you get protection from the wind.” Government or industry also should consider establishing a central clearinghouse where boatyards and marinas can report available hurricane storage before a storm so boaters can more readily find safe harbor. “People start wandering around, then the bridges get locked down and they get trapped somewhere,” Roach said.

Planning and up-to-date information should help prevent this.

Boaters also should know how to secure their boats and understand they can’t wait until the last day to start thinking about it.

Roach said the summit identified 70 hurricane-related issues. Summit organizer Marine Industries Association of Palm Beach County plans to publish a full report in June, with issues prioritized for action based on how the participants at the May 4 summit rank them.

Colorado State University’s Dr. William Grey, the nation’s preeminent hurricane forecaster, has predicted 13 named storms — seven of them hurricanes, three of them major ones with winds over 110 mph — this June 1 to Nov. 30 hurricane season. He has calculated a 53 percent chance of a major hurricane hitting the East Coast United States, including peninsular Florida, and a 41 percent chance of one hitting the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the Florida Panhandle.

Before last summer, Palm Beach County had gone 25 years without a direct hit from a hurricane. “We thought every storm was going to take a big northern turn or slip into the Gulf,” Roach said. “Now we know that is not always going to be the case.”

“Be prepared,” he advises.