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Under way: surveying the aftermath

Dewey Ives' cell phone just kept ringing. After excusing himself a few times to take new incoming calls, he finally gave up and let his voice mail answer them.

Dewey Ives' cell phone just kept ringing. After excusing himself a few times to take new incoming calls, he finally gave up and let his voice mail answer them.

A marine surveyor on BoatU.S.'s Catastrophe Response Team, Ives is a very busy man these days. Ever since Hurricane Charley tore through a swath of Florida's southwest coast Aug. 13, Ives and dozens of other team members have been working seven days a week surveying damaged boats and helping pick up the pieces.

They have been performing what in essence amounts to boat triage. Their first priority is any vessel that poses a threat to people, property or the environment. Only after the most seriously damaged boats have been dealt with do they turn their attention to the partial losses.

"This is unprecedented," says Ives, 52, a veteran of the large marine insurer's field team and a surveyor of 15 years. "It's remarkable. Three hurricanes in less than 60 days - my God."

Thousands and thousands of boats have been damaged or destroyed. As of late September, the number continued to increase as surveyors picked through the ruins of Hurricane Ivan.

"I'll be busy for a year at least on this coast," says Ives, who owns Precision Marine Surveyors in Pinellas Park, Fla.

The photos and video footage don't do justice to the magnitude of the destruction. "It's sort of like the Grand Canyon," Ives says. "Until you go up and look over the side, you can't appreciate it."

Recreational boat losses from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne totaled $680 million, according to BoatU.S. Hurricane Andrew, by comparison, was responsible for about $500 million in pleasure boat losses. "In terms of boat damage, I think Ivan is the worst of the three," says Carroll Robertson, vice president of claims for BoatU.S. and leader of the catastrophe teams. "The devastation in the Pensacola area is incredible. I'd say it ranks right up there with Hurricane Andrew and Hugo, if not a little worse."

"Ivan," she says, "was an equal opportunity destroyer."

A veteran of both Andrew and Hugo, Robertson says what surprised her most about these storms was the randomness of the destruction. How two marinas, for example, each well prepared and situated close to one another, could suffer such different levels of damage.

"There is no explaining it," she says.

And what has surprised Ives? "You become jaded after a while," the surveyor says. He paused for a moment, then continued. "That trimaran on the piling was quite a sight."

Ives was referring to a 28-foot Corsair trimaran that Hurricane Charley blew off its lift and impaled on a piling. The owner had done everything right, Ives says. He had unstepped the mast and lashed it to the deck. And he had strapped the boat securely to the lift.

In the end, none of it mattered. The straps parted under the terrific wind, and the boat now is a total loss.

In terms of advice from the front lines, both Ives and Robertson stress the need to take steps well in advance of a storm.

"Preparation is the key," Ives says. "Be diligent. Take precautions to protect yourself and your family. And at the risk of sounding glib, make sure your policy's paid up."

"It's a function of planning," Robertson adds. "If you wait to the last minute, it's too late."

Robertson also advises people to check the salvage provisions in their yacht policy. Make sure your salvage coverage is equal to the insured value of the boat, she says. Some policies - and this can be true of some homeowner policies, in particular - limit salvage coverage to a percentage of a boat's value.

One last thought, which seems clear as gin but probably bears repeating given the fact that some people still foolishly attempt to ride out powerful hurricanes on their boats.

"There is no boat in the world that is worth your life," Robertson says. "Hope for the best but prepare for the worse."