Heather O’Brien’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing in the two weeks since Hurricane Ian.
O’Brien, who has owned the Fort Myers Sea Tow franchise with husband Captain Pat O’Brien since 1996, has responded to “hundreds” of times boats have been sunk, shifted or had to be salvaged due to the storm.
And that number pales in comparison to what lies ahead.
“It just doesn’t stop,” she said. “For our area, (the calls) keep coming. Right now it’s queued at five or six thousand and we’re expecting a lot more.
“And that’s everyone, it’s going to take months to clean up. We won’t even have a season. We will be blown away over the next six months.”
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Hurricane Ian versus Hurricane Irma
Between the Category 4 hurricane’s winds and Southwest Florida’s unprecedented storm surge, thousands of boats were sunk or landed on dry land, levees, or even on top of other boats or even inside buildings.
It’s not that Southwest Florida hasn’t been hit by hurricanes before, but Ian was different, and the aftermath was different for everyone — including the boaters.
“(Hurricane) Irma was different because Irma pulled the water out,” said Austin Peterson, general manager of Stokes Marine in Fort Myers. “It was a storm surge. At Irma we had a couple of collapsed dikes, that was the big problem at the time because there was no water in those canals, and that’s the opposite of what we had. I don’t think anyone could have been prepared for what was to come.”
Many were evidently unprepared, whether it was the changing track of Hurricane Ian, which appeared to be headed for the Tampa area before shifting toward Southwest Florida, or simply ignorance of the proper protocols.
“If the boat could be moved in a Category 4 hurricane, you really should get it out of the water,” said Liz Bello-Matthews, public information officer for Fort Myers. “Nobody did that. Nobody pulled their boat out of the water. … The hurricane changed paths and headed straight for us. And we had about half a day, so many older people didn’t even have the opportunity to react. I know a lot of people who couldn’t put up hurricane (shutters).”
With so many boats under or out of the water, shipping companies are in desperate need.
“It’s a lot more than we can handle,” Peterson said. “Before today, we had a significant backlog in our business anyway. We’ve been incredibly busy with customers signing up for new boat lifts and docks and seawalls before Hurricane Ian. Most of these people have stayed with us even though there may have been significant damage to their property, they want to remain on the list. We have all these customers who are just acting in an emergency: “Hey, I need my boat out of the water, it’s blocking the channel, or it’s in someone’s backyard or on another boat. That’s more than we can absorb.”
A look at moving boats from place to place
Getting boats from places they shouldn’t be is no easy task and every situation is unique. Sometimes it can take as little as an hour for a smaller boat. Bigger boats take more time and more gear – and getting things done quickly isn’t always the best scenario.
“Often these boats need special equipment, cranes,” O’Brien said. “We are trying very hard to do our best and try to save the boat. We’re not just going to pull it out of there.
“You can’t rush these things. Everyone wants everything to be done right at this second, and that’s not possible.”
Boat insurance may cover the cost of boat removal or salvage. But just like with a house or car, the process can be slow and tedious.
“The way it works, if you have private property like that deposited in a public area, you have to go through the same steps if you have damage in the home,” Bello-Matthews said. “You have to enforce insurance claims. As a city, we cannot simply remove them. We need to work with the property owner who needs to make an insurance claim, work with FEMA, and then refer it to either the city or the insurance company to provide the relocation or financing. It’s really very complex. This is the first time something like this has happened in Fort Myers.”
Moving or salvaging can get expensive in a hurry and a lot of that depends on what the boat needs.
Prices range from $150 per foot to $400 per foot depending on the equipment required to get the job done.
“There are a lot of people who start at $350 and go up to $550,” O’Brien said. “I don’t want to say ‘exploit’ but you have to be careful so you know when it’s done and if it’s not done right, you know the local people will take care of you.
Bello-Matthews said it will likely be “over a month” before the boats are removed from Centennial Park. The city is still in the process of soliciting bids for the redevelopment, so it wasn’t sure what the cost would be.
“It’s going to be a lot,” Bello-Matthews said. “There’s no company that we normally work with because we’ve never had to do that before.”