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Vital signs improving for Fla. facilities

With the exception of some of the areas hardest hit by hurricanes, ICW yards should be ready for snowbirds

With the exception of some of the areas hardest hit by hurricanes, ICW yards should be ready for snowbirds

Florida’s boating infrastructure is pretty badly damaged after four hurricanes, but the Intracoastal Waterway is open, and there are enough docks and fuel pumps left standing for snowbirds to make their annual pilgrimage south this winter, industry leaders say.

“You can go down the [east coast] ICW today and get fuel and dockage,” said Marine Industries Association of Florida president David Ray, after an early October survey of marinas and boatyards from Jacksonville to Miami. He said the same was true of Florida’s west coast.

He expected the number of open fuel docks to double by November.

Cruisers bound for Florida this winter should be able to find dockage and fuel along the ICW and at their destination — if they plan ahead, make reservations and realize they will find slip and fuel shortages in the hardest-hit locales, among them Pensacola, Stuart-Fort Pierce and Charlotte Harbor. But even in those devastated ports, vital signs were getting stronger as the winter boating season approached.

Gary Guertin, manager of Pirate’s Cove Resort and Marina in Stuart, expected to have transient dockage again by early November, as did Burnt Store Marina in Charlotte Harbor. Carroll Robertson, BoatU.S. vice president of insurance claims, says docks around Pensacola and along the barrier islands of Gulf Breeze, Pensacola Beach and Orange Beach are virtually wiped out, but Ray said even there Pensacola Shipyard Marine Complex was taking boat repair work in early October and expected to re-open “a semblance of a marina” within a month.

Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne damaged or destroyed many docks and marinas, Ray said, but enough remain standing in most places to meet transient demand and the state’s major boating destinations — Fort Lauderdale, Miami and the Florida Keys — came through relatively unscathed. Gov. Jeb Bush has eased the job of rebuilding by issuing an emergency order enabling marinas to rebuild docks quickly after the hurricanes without applying for permits.

Guertin suggested snowbirds dally a while in mid-Atlantic ports as they cruise south this fall to give Florida marinas time to recover.

“It’s going to behoove anyone who comes down the coast to plan and prepare better, and contact ports of call well in advance to get reservations and find out the status of the marinas,” he said.

Those who cruise to Florida in winter to use its ports as jumping-off points to the Bahamas, the Abacos especially, are also advised to call ahead before cruising there. Hurricanes Francis and Jeanne blasted the Abacos, with only Marsh Harbour Marina and Boat Harbour still in operation after Jeanne. Port of Call, Harbour View, Mango’s and Conch Inn marinas reportedly lost their docks. Don Cornish, of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, expected Mango’s and Conch Inn to be back in operation by Thanksgiving. Treasure Cay Marina was partially open in early October and Spanish Cay Marina was scheduled to re-open later in the month. If rebuilding goes well, the Abacos could be back to some semblance of normalcy by November or early December, Cornish said.

Most of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway off Alabama and the Florida Panhandle was open, except for a few places that had shoaled or where bridges were under repair, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Michael Holmes, of the Mobile, Ala., Marine Safety Office. He said many boats still were missing and presumed sunk around Pensacola. “Mariners have to understand there’s going to be debris in the water,” he said. “You shouldn’t be running wide open when you don’t know what’s out there.”

The East Coast Intracoastal Waterway channel was open, but a lot of boats still were sunk in shallows or tossed up on shore, and inlets hadn’t been surveyed for shoaling, said David Roach, executive director of the Florida Inland Navigation District. “There have been no reports of problems,” he said. Charles Listowski, of the West Coast Inland Navigation District, said the west-coast ICW was open and navigable, but trees and other large debris still were a hazard in channels in Charlotte Harbor — especially around the Peace River and Englewood. He said it could take six months to clear feeder channels.

In the hurricanes’ aftermath, waterways managers and industry leaders are concerned about some longer-term issues:

• Finding public money and designating a state agency to raise dozens of abandoned boats from waterways. MIAF lobbyist John Sprague said several counties had taken the initiative and allocated a half-million dollars apiece to move sunken derelicts left by the hurricanes.

• Straightening out — by regulation or legislation — who should pay for dock damage at marinas after a hurricane, the marinas’ insurers or the insurers of boats that caused the damage after their owners decline to follow the marinas’ instructions to move their boats to a safer place. Florida law says a marina can’t require boats to leave the dock for safer harbor after a hurricane watch or warning is issued.

• Long–term loss of slips. FIND’s Roach worries that some mom-and-pop operators whose marinas were badly damaged will take their insurance money and sell their property to developers. Sprague said Florida will need more managed moorings to make up for slip losses.

• Long-term damage to the marine industry. Ray estimates the overall direct and indirect economic loss to the industry due to hurricanes this season at $1 billion. The MIAF is surveying marine businesses to nail down losses and is seeking federal assistance to rebuild.

• Shortage of repair yards. BoatU.S.’s Robertson said 2004’s hurricanes caused an estimated $680 million in recreational boat damage — $130 million for Charley, $300 million for Frances, $150 million for Ivan and $100 million for Jeanne. Ivan alone left over 1,000 boats damaged or destroyed, most of them on the Gulf Coast from Destin on the Florida Panhandle to the Mississippi border. Working repair yards there are in very short supply, Robertson said. BoatU.S. was offering Gulf Coast boatowners the option of trucking their boats to Mississippi, Mobile, Atlanta and Tampa for repairs, though most Tampa yards already were overwhelmed with repairs from Charley. She said some owners may have to wait nine months to a year to get their boat fixed.

Ray expected a lot of people whose boats were lost in the hurricanes to hustle down to the fall and winter boat shows with insurance checks in hand to buy a new boat at one of these “hurricane blow-out” sales. n