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There’s life after Ike

As we crossed the Fred Hartman Bridge, with the Houston Ship Channel below, a cluster of vacant dock pilings came into view to the southeast. Then, there was what appeared to be a pile of toothpicks on shore.

The “toothpicks” were sailboat masts. Hurricane Ike’s storm surge had lifted a fleet of 80 vessels — still tied in their slips — from these pilings and dumped them a quarter-mile inland on the road leading to the marina where they belonged — Bayland Park in Baytown, Texas.

My first glimpses of Ike’s destruction had come during the car ride from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. I saw the blown-out windows of the Chase Tower — the city’s tallest building — utility poles leaning over Houston streets, and shredded billboards along TX-146. But this was my first encounter with the damage Ike had inflicted on recreational boats.

BoatU.S. wanted to take a reporter into the mess to see how its marine insurance catastrophe field team finds and recovers policyholders’ boats and assesses damage to them. I traveled with Scott Croft, BoatU.S. assistant vice president of public relations, and Terri Parrow, vice president of Internet operations.

We arrived nine days after Ike, a Category 2 hurricane, struck. We explored six marinas and one yacht club in less than 48 hours. At each location, I jotted down descriptions of what I saw and interviewed the owners of battered boats, snapping about 250 photos in the process. Just how bad was it?

“This hurricane has probably had the most significant impact in the state’s history of recreational boating,” says Dewayne Hollin, a marine business management specialist with Texas Sea Grant program. “The only other hurricane I can think of that comes close is Alicia in ’83.”

Ike barreled through Galveston Bay Sept. 13. The national death toll had been tallied at 72 by early October, with 37 of those fatalities in Texas. An estimated 4,000 people were rescued after the storm, but 400 were still missing as of Oct. 8. More than a million people evacuated the Texas coast and, for a time, 2 million Texans were without power. Thousands of homes were destroyed, and damage estimates were in the billions of dollars.

Close to 15,000 boats were destroyed or damaged, according to Jim Holler, BoatU.S. vice president of marine insurance. In dollar terms, that represents about $200 million in boat losses — $175 million in Texas alone. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused $650 million to $750 million in boat damage, and 1992’s Andrew rang up about $500 million.

BoatU.S. team members inspected vessels at some 45 marinas and yacht clubs in the Houston, Clear Lake, Galveston and Port Arthur areas, according to Rick Wilson, catastrophe team coordinator. BoatU.S. Insurance received several hundred damage claims from Texas, and another 100 or so from 15 other states.

In October, it was still too early to put a dollar figure on marina damage, says Hollin. “The marinas are still scraping debris off the floor,” he says. However, of the 38 marinas in the Galveston and Clear Lake areas, at least half are dealing with substantial damage that will keep them out of business for several months, if not longer.

Ike hit Texas boating at its most vulnerable points. Galveston Bay and Clear Lake are the largest boating areas in the state by far, with 10,000 vessels, says Hollin, who works closely with the state’s marina association. Of the 365 marinas in Texas, 110 are on the coast, says Hollin.

The following entries follow my travels in and around the hurricane zone.

Sept. 22, 3:45 p.m.
Sun-baked barnacles cover the underbellies of the marina docks. The stench hits me the moment I open the rental car door. From the bridge we crossed, I had seen only sailboats, but there were nearly as many powerboats at Bayland Park Marina — Sea Rays, Chris-Crafts, Bertrams, you name it. Most are still tied to their docks. And most of the docks are still linked.

“The damage is very much surge-driven and heavy in a narrow stretch,” says Wilson, who also is BoatU.S. Marine Insurance’s assistant vice president of claims. “Galveston, Clear Lake and Bayland Park received the most damage from what we’ve seen.”

The recreational boats at Bayland range from 25 to 45 feet. Many seemed unharmed, such as Richard Nelson’s 1982 Pearson, My Pantheon, a 36-footer. “The rudder is pushed over farther than I think it is supposed to be,” says the 81-year-old sailor, who has kept his boat here since 1996. “I haven’t seen anything terrible. I haven’t looked in the cabin yet, though.”

Ross Bounds, 48, keeps two boats at the marina. He tells me his 1979 Hunter 30, which sits in a salt marsh just behind us, appears to be OK. His other vessel, a 26-foot custom trimaran, is hidden behind trees. “There’s a couple of holes in the hull, and the rigging is ripped out of the deck, says Bounds. “It definitely cannot float right now.”

As I walk through the maze of twisted docks and beat-up boats, I see a half-dozen with the same message scribbled on their hulls: “Not abandoned! No Trespassing!” The BoatU.S. surveyors tag those boats, too. Essentially, the tags identify the vessels as being insured with BoatU.S. and inspected by one of its surveyors. They offer a reward for those who report vandalism.

Vandalism would be no problem here, though. A 300-pound boat owner has proclaimed himself sheriff of the marina and is standing guard with a shotgun 24/7. Jim Wood, the BoatU.S. surveyor assigned to this facility, has become friendly with the fellow. Thanks to Wood, the “sheriff” gives us (me, Croft and Parrow) no trouble when we arrive to walk the grounds.

I’m intrigued by the big man who felt obligated to protect the boats. Wood tells me the man lived aboard one of the storm-damaged boats. “Do you think I can talk to him?” I ask Wood.

“That’s not a good idea right now,” he replies. “He has a six-pack of beer in him, and he has his shotgun.”

I agree. It’s getting late, anyway.

Sept. 23, 6:45 a.m.
I click the send button, shooting off my first report for the Soundings Trade Only daily e-newsletter. (A sister publication to Soundings, Trade Only is a monthly business-to-business marine magazine, Parrow and Croft wait for me in the hotel lobby. We drive to the “cat” team morning meeting at another hotel around the corner. The surveyors are packed into a small room, developing a strategy for the day. The Hurricane Ike squad consists of 11 surveyors, many of whom have worked in this capacity for more than 20 years. “It’s like getting the band back together,” says Wilson. The surveyors had arrived two days after the storm, Sept. 15, and would be there for about a month.

The team members must first find and tag the damaged BoatU.S.-insured vessels. This involves contacting marina personnel and then sniffing out the boats. The recovery phase comes next. This could involve pulling a boat from the bottom of a bay, freeing one that has been impaled on a piling, or separating a Boat U.S.-insured yacht from a pile of others.

“Their goal is to find a single salvor who will assemble the necessary equipment — cranes, barges, air bags, towing vessels — to complete the job,” says Wilson.

At the meeting, the surveyors talk about the challenges ahead, such as the 58-foot Hatteras inside a shed at the Galveston Yacht Basin. Ike pushed the shed onto its side, crushing a trawler and an express fishing boat. Inside, the BoatU.S.-insured Hatteras is virtually untouched, but the team’s salvage of the vessel would have to wait until the marina removes the shed.

The Galveston Yacht Basin on Galveston Island’s northeast end is our next stop. The car ride from Houston takes two hours because of a massive traffic jam extending from a checkpoint at the entrance to the island. The snarl gives me a chance to get a good look at the boats lying on the side of State Highway 45. The storm had left many in the middle of the road, but highway crews had swept them onto the median or to the side with cranes and other heavy equipment.

Just before the storm, fire had struck a boat storage shed — a “botel” — here and literally melted the 130 small powerboats inside. Because the fire occurred during the hurricane, no emergency vehicles had been able to respond, so the boats disintegrated into melted-down lumps of fiberglass and bent steel.

Elsewhere, small powerboats are strewn about the basin grounds, most still under the facility’s covered slips. The storm surge lifted boats and pinned them to the aluminum roofs, flattening flybridges, crushing T-tops and snapping antennas. When the water receded, the boats came down, many on top of one another or plopped onto concrete walkway piers. Others hang from their lifting slings in almost comical positions. I see a Fish Master bay boat hanging by its outboard. The forward section from the bow to the center console is submerged. Another boat — a 23-foot walkaround — sank, rolled over, and when the water receded, came to rest upside down in its slings.

Chris Garver’s Tiara Sovran 3600, which he had bought only three weeks before the storm, is propped up on the dock, standing on its two rudders. The boat had been trucked 1,300 miles from Wisconsin without a scratch. “It was beautiful,” says Garver, 55, of his 2005 cruiser. “I went from being the happiest guy on the planet to being despondent. I think I cried three or four times.”

But Garver ended up happy. The day after our interview, he e-mails me, saying he hired a company that was able to get the boat back in the water without damage. “To say I am jazzed is the biggest understatement of all times,” he writes. “I guess those prayers during and after the storm paid off.”

When Ike hit, Paul Wood had no time to pray. The retired naval architect actually remained on his 65-foot McGregor through the storm. “I stayed to adjust my lines,” says Wood. “When the eye wall came I went into the cabin so I wouldn’t get hit with flying debris. The boat was strong enough to protect me from anything that came my way” — including a fleet of boats that had broken loose from their berths.

“They all came down on me,” he says. “Some went over the [sea] wall.” The 1989 McGregor had come to rest on the dock below the sea wall, which was a good thing because it sustained a hole that would have led to its sinking.

Unlike many boats, the docks, pilings and covered slips at the Galveston Yacht Basin fared relatively well, according to general manager Eddie Barr. “We have 500 slips, and we were at 100 percent,” says Barr, a native of Galveston who called Ike the worst he’s seen since Carla in 1961. “We were 100 percent full before the storm, and we will be 100 percent by [next] summer. I have tenants who don’t want to go anywhere.”

Sept. 23, 3:10 p.m.
Across Galveston Bay, about 40 miles northwest, a tale of two marinas awaits. Watergate Yachting Center and Waterford Harbor Marina are both in Kemah, on the southeast shore of Clear Lake. Ike destroyed 430 of the 1,147 slips at Watergate, according to the center’s leasing agent, Sherrie Roy. Next door at Waterford, you never would have known a hurricane packing 110-mph winds had swept through 10 days earlier.

Unlike Watergate, this 650-slip marina was built with tall pilings — 16 feet above mean low tide — and floating docks. And a group of condominiums offers protection.

“I knew it was a good hurricane marina,” says Bob Willett, who has kept his Hunter Passage 456 sailboat at Waterford for two years. “I put 30 lines on my boat. They were talking about a 20- to 25-foot surge. I thought I would be looking for a new boat right now.”

Instead, he and I gaze at the ruined boats of others who are less fortunate. The short sea wall in front of Watergate was no match for Ike. In front of me are the remnants of piers 10, 11 and 12 — piles of torn-up docks, half-sunken sailboats and bent-over masts. A crane had just lifted a 36-foot Pearson off the muddy bottom. Now, pumps belch out the water inside the vessel.

I’m standing alongside Bill Ballard, one of the BoatU.S. surveyors. This is a BoatU.S.-insured vessel, and he is on his cell phone with the owner, Jay Eckols of Missouri City, Texas. He tells the sailor his boat had a significant hole in the hull. The news confirms what Eckols suspected: The boat is a total loss.

“It’s been a part of our lives for eight years,” says Eckols, 59, who is willing to talk to me after his conversation with Ballard. “It’s very sad to hear the news. It’ll be hard to find another boat like this. My wife and I went through a grieving process. There were tears.”

Sept. 24, 8:30 a.m.
Our last stop is the Houston Yacht Club in Shoreacres, which has received major media attention because of the severity of damage to its boats and property. But we make a quick detour to check out BoatU.S.’s 4-acre makeshift boatyard that serves as a home for vessels that can’t be revived. It’s a graveyard for boats, really — one that’s infested with jumbo mosquitoes — “the state bird of Texas,” joked one surveyor — and flesh-hungry fire ants. BoatU.S. will sell the vessels to an auction company, which will then sell them to the highest bidders. Only eight vessels had been dropped off when we arrive — six sailboats and two powerboats.

Ted Lemmond Jr. heads up the boat-transportation operation. Armed with three hydraulic trailers and the same number of towing trucks, Lemmond expects to haul more than 100 boats to this site when all is said and done. That’s a lot, but it’s short of the 165 BoatU.S.-insured boats destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, says Lemmond.

Lemmond would be here another 45 days or so. I would not want to be him, I think, as I swat mosquitoes off my calves and discover a small army of fire ants on my shoes.

Sept. 24, 9:20 a.m.
“Yeah, we got hit hard,” says Ross Tuckwiller, general manager of the Houston Yacht Club. “Some people say we’re through, but we’re not. We’re going to have a better facility than before the storm came.”

About 80 percent of the docks will need to be completely rebuilt. The other 20 percent will need significant repairs, too, he says. The club has insurance, “But it won’t cover everything — like this road,” says Tuckwiller, referring to the paved pier we walk over. Ike peeled the tar off the surface, now covered with hundreds of stones that once surrounded the pier perimeter.

The club has 350 wet slips positioned along two piers. About one third of the 250 boats — roughly half power, half sail — that are kept here were moved before the storm, says Tuckwiller.

The club faces east — directly exposed to Galveston and Trinity bays. Ike ignored the sea wall in front of the piers. Most of the boats that stayed were torn from their docks and pushed onto the shore or the club grounds — on the grass, in the parking lot, smashed against the pier rocks. Some sank.

John S. John, 54, is walking back to his car after checking on his 26-foot Grampian. The sailboat lies in the club parking lot on its starboard side. “They want $150 a foot to remove the boat,” says John, who lives in Nassau Bay, Texas. “That’ll be more than the boat is worth.” He estimates its value at $3,500. “This is a disaster. This could be it for my boat.”

John cancelled his insurance policy two years ago. The premium was $1,000 a year. “Insurance rates get so high, you wonder if it’s worth it,” he says.

John and his wife, Susan, came to the club the night before the hurricane made landfall. They doubled up new 5/8- and 3/4-inch lines to secure the vessel. “The water was already thigh-high,” says John, a naval architect for a commercial boat design company. “The surge was 14 feet. There was nothing we could have done.”

Sept. 24, 10:30 a.m.
I hear a vehicle approaching. It’s Croft and Parrow in the rental car. I could continue shooting photos and scribbling descriptions of the carnage all day. But I’m glad to be heading home. All the destruction is getting to me.

On the ride to the airport, before jumping on the highway, we weave through some back roads, sandwiched by gutted homes with ruined furniture, appliances, televisions and rubble stacked in front of them. These people face a hard road ahead, but they’re tough folks. Watergate Yachting Center’s Sherrie Roy sums it up: “We’re movin’ on.”