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BoatUS’s CAT Team Takes On Its Biggest Challenge Ever


In a disaster area, the small things you normally never think about can be the most challenging. Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the New Jersey coast at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, October 29, with tropical storm-force winds extending from North Carolina to Maine. New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut bore the brunt of the destruction, but the mammoth storm took out power and destroyed boats in more than 15 states. Before the wind and rain had stopped, BoatUS was deploying its Catastrophe team (CAT team) into the hardest-hit areas, where small things were causing big problems.

Early Wednesday morning, less than 36 hours after Sandy made landfall, Jim Schofield, a retired BoatUS employee, was hard at work trying to find rooms for the CAT teams heading out into the field. “The phones are still out in many areas, the coastal hotels are shut down, the inland hotels are full of people who evacuated,” he said. “I finally manage to book something, and then FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers comes in and commandeers a block of rooms, leaving my guys out in the cold.”

Hotels were only one piece of the logistical puzzle. Dave Wiggin, who has worked on BoatUS CAT teams for more than two decades, arrived on Staten Island two days after Superstorm Sandy to find the marina owners in Great Kills Harbor grappling with a host of problems: “There is no electricity. Every piece of equipment — from the Travelift to forklifts to generators to tools — has been submerged in eight feet of saltwater.” Gasoline was already becoming scarce and soon it would be rationed. Restaurants were closed, supermarkets shuttered, roads were blocked by trees, power lines were down, emergency vehicles were everywhere. Finding a clear way through the last four blocks to the waterfront took Dave a dozen tries and more than half an hour.

Ten days after Sandy, when the Seaworthy editors paid a visit to the CAT teams in the field, some of the most vexing challenges had started to be addressed. In Great Kills Harbor, generators were humming all along the waterfront, pumps were spewing water out of basements into storm sewers, and forklifts were bustling around with boats cradled in their upraised arms. The Great Kills Yacht Club had hired a crane, and all of its boats were back on jackstands, upright though thoroughly battered. But gasoline was being rationed, boats were scattered willy-nilly around residential neighborhoods, twisted and broken jackstands lay in piles like kindling, condemned houses extended for four blocks and more from the water’s edge, and the power was still out on large parts of the island. To add insult to injury, everything was covered with a couple of inches of snow from the nor’easter that had come through the night before.

Damage at Mansion Marina, Great Kills Harbor, Staten Island, New York

Dave Wiggin was staying in an apartment more than an hour from Staten Island, so he was spending 14 to 16 hours a day in the field, working out of his car, subsisting on power bars. The small things most of us take for granted were still tremendously difficult, and life was a long way from normal.

Despite all that, the first checks for BoatUS insureds had been processed and mailed, and were being received by grateful owners. To make that happen, BoatUS fielded over 40 CAT team specialists across more than 400 miles of coastline, all working as hard and as long as Dave Wiggin. Many of them were managing multiple salvors at a half-dozen marinas. At BoatUS headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, the entire claims department had been mobilized and personnel had been pulled in from all over the company to handle calls around the clock and process incoming claims 16 hours a day, seven days a week. That pace went on for almost a month, when the CAT team members and all but a skeleton crew of claims people took one day off so they could celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, BoatUS had geared right back up and our employees were once again processing claims as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“Never Seen Anything Like This”

In Great Kills Harbor, Staten Island, on November 8, 10 days after Superstorm Sandy made landfall, Dave Wiggin stood in the middle of Mansion Avenue talking to Ed Corbo, the owner of Mansion Marina. On one side of them, boats from the marina’s hardstand area straddled the crumpled chain-link fence running along the road. Some were tilted at odd angles, their bows or sterns sticking straight up into the air, as if they had made a desperate attempt to leap the fence and been brought down mid-flight. On the other side, a tangle of a dozen sail and powerboats ranging from 20 to 40 feet in length leaned precariously against one another where they had fetched up against one of the elegant houses fronting the street. Farther down Mansion Avenue, a row of sailboats lay on their sides in front of the row of houses, their masts tangled in the electrical wires overhead. Right behind Dave, a 25-foot Chris-Craft sat on the edge of the road in front of a house as if it had been parallel-parked. A note on the side said, “Do not move … Boat is fine, not junk,” with a phone number.

Dave, who had been told that morning he looked like Richard Gere with a beard and was making sure everyone knew it, introduced us to Ed. We offered our condolences and asked if he minded if we wandered around his marina. “What’s left of it,” he said grimly.

Corbo and his marina crew had made a Herculean effort to get as many boats as possible out of the water and on the hardstand before Sandy hit. The storm surge had not only lifted almost all of the boats off their jackstands and carried them across the hardstand area, but it had also floated the docks off their pilings and left them in twisted heaps along the bulkhead. In the Travelift slip, a 25-foot center console sat atop a jumble of floating docks. Shallow puddles of gasoline and diesel shimmered in rainbow colors over the muddy ground, gathering in the low-lying hardstand area from the damaged boats in this marina and the marinas on either side. The Coast Guard had been by that morning asking when the fuel would be cleaned up. But there was no electricity, no working pumps, and no way to stop the continuous trickle of fuel coming from dozens of different places.

The marina employees were tackling a pile of powerboats on the bulkhead with a forklift, picking out one at a time and trundling them over to a cleared space where several dozen boats had been re-blocked in neat rows. Everyone looked shell-shocked. They’d been working nonstop for nearly two weeks, starting three days before Sandy struck. The nor’easter the day before had stopped the work for half a day, but at dawn that morning they had been back at it again, despite the freezing temperatures and snow.

When our CAT team specialists in the field started reporting in within 48 hours of Sandy’s landfall, they all said the same thing: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Even those with more than two decades of experience working disaster sites in the wake of hurricanes could hardly believe how widespread and complete the devastation was. Their reaction should have prepared us, but we were still shocked. We spent the first hour or so saying, “This is unbelievable.” “I’ve never seen anything like it.” “This is absolutely awful.” After that, we stopped saying anything at all.

A Day in the Life of a CAT Team Member

Insured by BoatUS Sticker

Dave Wiggin pasted a BoatUS sticker with a claim number and the BoatUS phone number to the bow of a blue, 30-foot C&C that lay nose down halfway over the crushed chain-link fence that had marked the boundary of the Mansion Marina hardstand area. He returned to his car, pulled out a sheaf of claim files in manila folders, and riffled through them until he found the right one. He made some notes, and then said, “A guy’s bringing a crane in where one of our boats is. I need to go over and negotiate a salvage contract with him.”

We climbed into his car after shifting boxes of claim files, foul weather gear, bags of power bars, and a huge plastic jug of dog treats shaped like pigs-in-a-blanket. The first three tries to reach the waterfront in the right area ended in streets blocked by trees, repair vehicles, and boats. A police car with flashing lights guarded the entrance to the fourth street we tried. Dave slowed and rolled down his window, but the police waved him through when they saw the BoatUS Catastrophe Team sticker on the side of his car.

Dave turned onto Tennyson Drive, separated from the water by a wide marsh filled with cattails. At least a dozen boats lay scattered among the yellowed stalks, and three or four had come to rest against the guardrail running alongside the road. Most of the boats came in pairs, one tied to either side of a pontoon with doubled lines and chafe gear still in place. Dave slowed, reading the names on some of the sterns of the boats alongside the road. “The hardest thing right now is finding our boats. I think all of these came from Nichols Marina on the eastern side of Great Kills Harbor,” he said. “Those pontoons floated off their pilings and the boats were driven right across the harbor and almost out the mouth to fetch up here, half a mile away.”

Dave pulled over behind a utility vehicle with a workman in the cherry picker fixing a power line. Just beyond, two 35-foot powerboats on either side of their pontoon sat in the middle of an intersection. The tower on one was within a few feet of the power lines. “Going to have to take off that tower,” Dave said.

Damage Near Crescent Beach, Staten Island, New York

It took a couple of phone calls back and forth, but eventually Captain Frank Nicolois a local salvor, found us. In the meantime, Dave fielded a half-dozen calls about other boats from members, salvors, and BoatUS headquarters. Captain Frank and Dave engaged in a spirited negotiation before they signed a salvage contract on the trunk of Dave’s car. One of the biggest advantages of our CAT team personnel is their long experience with salvage. They know not only how much they should pay, but also how to judge whether a salvor is up to the task or a fly-by-night operator with no knowledge of boats stepping in to make money off of a disaster.

It had taken more than an hour-and-a-half to reach the boat and finish our business with Captain Frank, the third step in Dave’s handling of this member’s claim — he had already spent time contacting the member and locating the boat. Once Captain Frank got the boat back to where it had come from, the fourth step — the damage appraisal — could begin.

As we climbed back into the car, Dave said, “Multiply by 300.”

“Multiply by 300”

Damage at Nelson Marine Basin, Island Heights, New Jersey

Multiply by 300. Not just 300 claims. Multiply by 300 marinas… at least.

When we arrived at Nelson Marine Basin in Island Heights, New Jersey, the next morning, 11 days after Sandy struck, work was already well underway. It had taken us more than three hours to drive the 50 miles from Monmouth Junction, the only place we’d been able to find a hotel, out to the seaside resort area. The roads were jammed with cars as people flooded in to check on houses on the mainland and the Barrier Islands, and with semis bringing food and supplies to the stores whose shelves were all but bare. Power had been off again overnight in several of the towns we passed through, and emergency workers were clearing more than one intersection of traffic accidents.

At Nelson’s, we found CAT team surveyor Jack Hornor with marina owner Gordon Nelson observing the slow work of untangling a massive pile of boats. Gordon had hired a crane, and it was painstakingly lifting each boat out of the pileup and swinging it into the waiting Travelift. The Travelift then lumbered off to set its load down alongside one of the neat rows of re-blocked boats while Gordon’s crew scrambled to set up jackstands.

Multiply by 100-and-something…

As the crane lifted a 40-foot Beneteau sloop, Jack said, “That’s one of ours, and the big Silverton under it.” The Beneteau had been lying on its side and came up listing drunkenly to starboard. The crane operator carefully adjusted the straps to rotate the boat just enough so the mast cleared the Travelift arms. As it settled into the Travelift slings, Jack said, “The owner just got her back after major repairs to the keel and hull from a bad grounding.”

Jack Horner (right) discusses a difficult salvage with retired Seaworthy editor Bob Adriance.

Gordon was still in a state of shock. The marina had been a family-owned business since 1965, and he was the third generation to manage it. He had spent the storm in his apartment on the second floor of his new sailing center, a beautiful, gray wooden building perched on the bulkhead overlooking the sailboat rental docks. The sailing center had been Gordon’s passion, and under his management it had grown to seven instructors and dozens of boats including 30 Ensigns, a 25-foot O’Day, and a 30-foot Gemini catamaran. Gordon was committed to getting adults out on the water, not just kids, and some of those he had turned on to sailing now had boats lying in the pile at the crane’s feet. The sailing center had been self insured, and Gordon couldn’t see how he’d be able to get it up and running again.

“I’d been through the 1992 nor’easter, so I thought I knew what to expect,” Gordon said. In anticipation of Sandy, “we hauled everything we possibly could and blocked it up as high as possible. We put tools and equipment up on blocks. Then I went upstairs in the sailing center and waited.”

The first high tide came in on Monday around noon, about eight hours before the storm made landfall but well after gale-force winds had started. It covered the parking lot and hardstand area by a couple of feet, and then it receded. “Just as I’d expected,” Gordon said. But when the midnight tide came in, it just kept coming. “Two feet, four feet, six feet … and I knew. I knew the Barrier Islands must have been breached.” Gordon watched, helpless, as the water continued to rise, the first floor of the sailing center flooded; waves began to sweep across the hardstand area; and the boats below him started to float, and then to move. “It was a nightmare.”

The nor’easter two days before we arrived onsite had pushed the high tides over the bulkhead by a foot or so to flood part of the hardstand area yet again. “The Barrier Islands were breached in seven places during the storm. I don’t know whether the normal tides will continue to come over the bulkhead,” Gordon said. “If so, what are we going to do?”

But he was already doing it. The crane was hard at work, and all of the boats would soon be re-blocked so that the damage assessments could begin. Like so many other marina owners, Gordon was taking it one step at a time, doing what had to be done, and not waiting for anyone else to step in.

“This is where BoatUS can make a difference,” Jack told us. “What the marina owners need right now more than anything else is cash. We’re in the field, so we know when the work has been done.” As the crane picked up the Silverton we had insured, he continued. “As soon as we can, we start the money flowing for the salvage of our boats. For some of these marinas, that money will fund the work that has to be done until they start receiving payments from owners or other insurance companies.”

Stories like this were unfolding from the eastern end of Long Island as far south as Cape May. Forty BoatUS CAT team specialists were doing whatever they could to help, from offering advice and authorizing checks to taking the lead in complex salvage operations.

On Friday, November 9, Mike Ruah, writing to the rest of the boat owners at the Stuyvesant Yacht Club on City Island in New York City, said, “Today, a barge-mounted crane arrived at the club seawall to begin lifting some of the boats that are in the twisted pile … of … roughly 29 boats …. The BoatUS Catastrophe Team was the first insurance group to arrive onsite. They immediately assessed the situation and joined our Board of Directors at a meeting on Monday evening, November 5 [one week after Sandy made landfall]. The BoatUS team members Fred Wright, Ted Lemmond, and Tom Benton have shown a genuine concern for all boat owners. Tom will be onsite during the recovery operations and will assess damages once the boats are safely on jackstands.”

Mike McCook, the salvage coordinator for the BoatUS Catastrophe Team and storm veteran with over 30 years of hurricane recovery experience, was on the debris-laden and boat-strewn waterfront at Atlantic Highlands Marina the day after the storm. Every single one of the municipal facility’s 425-plus boats had to be salvaged or recovered. Many were owned by BoatUS members. Mike teamed up with Captain Harold Smith of TowBoatUS Sandy Hook, and the BoatUS team worked with marina personnel to develop a salvage master plan to recover all of the marina’s boats. The City Council ratified the plan just three days after Mike arrived onsite. Three weeks after the storm, every boat had been recovered and safely blocked ashore, and the damage appraisal process had begun.

Which brings us back to logistics. To cover the waterfront, so to speak, BoatUS has had to use all of the resources and experience we have built over 30 years of CAT team responses. We have brought people out of retirement, and mobilized new CAT team personnel we had been grooming. At headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, BoatUS employees have been working just as hard as the CAT team members in the field.

Superstorm Sandy has stretched all BoatUS employees as far as we have ever been stretched and will continue to do so well into the spring. In most other CAT events, we would have wrapped up and paid out the last claims after three weeks. Despite the hurdles, with many times the claims we’ve had in most CAT events, and every one of our resources already committed, by the time you read this, the majority of damage assessments should have been completed. However, the repairs on many boats will have to wait until the weather breaks in the spring. Carroll Robertson, head of claims for BoatUS, summed it up: “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Early Lessons Learned: Floating Docks With Tall Pilings

Staten Island Yacht Sales, Staten Island, New York

Sandy was a “hybrid storm” that combined the punch of a hurricane with the reach and longevity of a nor’easter. Sandy’s arrival also coincided with an unusually high lunar tide, which resulted in a massive — and destructive — eight- to 12-foot surge.

As with every other major storm, BoatUS Technical Services has been meeting with claims personnel and CAT team staff and surveyors to learn what could have been done to protect boats. In past storms, boats on shore were less likely to be seriously damaged, since boats don’t sink on land. But Sandy’s unusually high surge picked up boats — thousands of boats — that were being stored ashore for the winter and then bounced them against each other as well as buildings, telephone poles, electric wires, and automobiles.

It’s difficult to see how this sort of damage could have been reduced. Storage on high ground typically wasn’t an option and there wasn’t enough time or resources available to haul boats inland. Boats left in the water at marinas, as in past storms, proved to be equally as vulnerable to damage as boats on shore and many were bashed against pilings or sunk. The one exception that we saw — the only place that boats consistently resisted damage — was at floating docks with pilings that were taller than the surge. The boats shown above, at a heavily battered area on Staten Island, simply floated up and down with the surge. Boats at floating docks with shorter pilings, however, were among the most damaged boats — the surge lifted the docks off the piling and carried them ashore. The key was the height of the pilings.

In the coming months, we will be debriefing our CAT team personnel and talking to marina owners in an effort to learn more. And we will share what we learn in the pages of Seaworthy and in webinars for the industry and for owners in hopes of reducing the damage should another hybrid storm like Sandy come calling.

BoatUS Editors

Contributor, BoatUS Magazine