Lessons Learned From The 2017 Hurricane Season

By Charles Fort and Mark Corke

Some exceptional storms from 2017 drive home the lessons for 2018: Planning and preparation are more important than ever.

Boat salvageEvery hurricane offers BoatUS CAT team members the opportunity to learn how to better prepare for future storms.

It was way back in 1983 when the first BoatUS Hurricane Catastrophe (CAT) Team was formed and deployed to Houston after Hurricane Alicia struck the Texas Gulf Coast. After each destructive storm, the CAT team has been on the ground, sometimes within just hours after the storm passed.

Three-and-a-half decades and dozens of storms later, we've seen how properly prepared boats fare, as well as on those that were effectively ignored, in all kinds of storms. And we learned that each storm carries its own unique challenges. Some, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012, come with super high storm surges. Others, like Hurricane Irma last year, have devastating winds (Irma had the highest winds of any storm in the Atlantic Ocean and reached 180 mph), and some, like Hurricane Harvey (also last year), dumped record amounts of rain; Harvey flooded Nederland, Texas, with more than 60 inches of rain — the all-time record for a single storm — and also lasted more than twice as long as any other storm.

If it sounds like storms are getting more destructive, it's not just your imagination. The three big hurricanes of 2017 — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — are three of the five costliest hurricanes in U.S. history (see, "How Climate Change Is Affecting Boating").

Prep Time

So how do you prepare for such a diversity of storms? For starters, have a detailed plan for dealing with storms that may have extra high surge, excessive rain, and stronger-than-normal winds — and don't delay when a storm is approaching.

Once a tropical storm forms, the National Hurricane Center begins forecasting not just direction and size, but potential surges based on tides and expected landfall, rain amounts in various sections of the storm, and where the highest winds are expected. When in doubt, prepare for the worst. Visit the BoatUS Hurricane Center  for everything from tracking storms to prepping your boat for one, and what to do after a storm hits.

Eyes On The Ground

South Florida suffered the most from Hurricane Irma, and the CAT team was on its way before the rain had even ended. BoatUS staff was on the ground along with other veteran CAT team members. Here's what they learned. SAMS-accredited marine surveyor and BoatUS Magazine associate editor Mark Corke has seen his share of destroyed boats but nothing like those that he experienced in the aftermath of Irma. He said the destructive power of the hurricane was truly "awe-inspiring."

"Large boats weighing many tons were simply lifted up and dumped in backyards and parking lots," he says. "It was apparent that many owners whose boats were in marinas had done little to prepare for the storm, and while there is always going to be an element of luck, owners who had gone to the trouble of readying their boats generally fared much better. They had plenty of fenders out, lines were doubled, and in some cases tripled, and chafing gear where lines passed through chocks was apparent."

Mike McCook is CAT team coordinator for BoatUS and has been involved with hurricane recovery efforts for more than 35 years. "Over the years we've refined our process, and we are often the first insurance representatives on scene following a major storm event," says McCook, who adds the CAT team is there to help owners and get folks back on the water as soon as possible. A boater himself, McCook knows just how important it is to get to damaged boats swiftly, assess the damage, and process any claim.

"I think that many boaters have become savvier about hurricanes, and in general, they are preparing better," says McCook. "That said, I do see a lot of the same things over and over; folks who have just walked away from their boats ahead of the storm, incomplete preparedness, failure to haul the boat even when they have the opportunity, and a general failure to understand just how much damage a hurricane can do." He stresses, "If there's one thing that I would like people to know, it is that boats are far safer out of the water when a major storm hits."

Owner of TowBoatUS Potomac, Terry Hill's primary responsibility was to evaluate boats that needed salvage and coordinate efforts to remove boats that had either sunk or had been washed ashore, often into residential areas. "Boats can be in difficult spots. We had one sailboat that ended up in a swimming pool in the back yard of a house, requiring a crane and other special equipment to get it shifted. If more boats were better prepared, we'd be able to spend a lot more time getting boats fixed and less time just getting them off roads and lawns."

High And Dry

As we've stressed, preparation is key to being ready for a tropical storm. Much of the devastating damage caused when a series of hurricanes made landfall in Florida and the Gulf states at the end of last year was not just from the high winds but from storm surge. Many pilings were not tall enough, and floating docks — and the boats that were attached to them — were carried away.

Boat secured for hurricanePhoto: Mark Corke

It was heartening to CAT team members to see this boat (pictured above) that survived in a marina that sustained a direct hit from Hurricane Irma. Although BoatUS typically recommends taking boats away from the water, the owner of this boat kept his on a boat lift, which he raised as high as possible. Then, after removing all of the loose stuff from the boat, the owner taped the lockers closed and removed the transom plug. This way, if any water did find it's way into the bilge, it would be free to drain away. Finally, the owner sensibly used ratchet straps at each corner to cinch the boat to well-secured cleats on the dock to ensure that the boat would not be dislodged by high wind or water.

While this may not have worked with storms creating exceptional surges, the owner predicted right; his was the only boat that survived in the marina.

Advice From The Experts

McCook and Hill agree that boats are almost always safer ashore, either at a marina or parked on a trailer in the yard — a message repeated often by the pros. Unfortunately, boats in Coconut Grove and marinas just south of Miami after Irma subsided were devastated. It was obvious to our experts that some owners had done little to prepare, and many lost their boats. Other owners, however, had done all they could, and their boats fared much better, even in a monster like Irma.

One thing the experts note is that even if a boat is seriously banged up at its dock, it's almost always repairable, while a boat that sank may be a total loss. Of the boats that survived the most recent hurricanes, most had additional lines to pilings and docks, both close to and some distance from the boat. These longer lines allowed the boats to rise higher during the storm surge without crashing into the dock.

Using extra fenders can reduce the damage to a boat's topsides if they bang and rub against adjacent docks, piers, pilings and other boats. Corke says that traditional fenders often seemed to be too light to stay put and noticed that some owners had hung weights below the water surface from the bottom of the fenders to keep them hanging vertically. Corke notes that this is smart thinking, but that the weights need to be far enough underwater to avoid damaging the hull.

When The Damage Is Done

Another obvious fact of hurricane aftermath is that many boats are damaged by other neighboring vessels. Corke says it was unfortunate to see the care that some owners had taken amounted to nothing when adjacent boats broke free and drifted down onto a properly secured boat, causing either significant damage or sinking to both boats. One way to counter this is to know your dockmates, have their contact information, and help each other prepare when a storm threatens. BoatUS Marine Insurance also encourages better preparation by lowering the named-storm deductible for insured owners who make active preparations when a storm approaches, such as hauling the boat, lashing the boat to the ground, and removing any windage items such as enclosures, canvas, and/or sails. Take photos of the preparation in case you later have a claim.

The Vital Paperwork

Hill notes that while boats can be replaced or repaired, many owners lost irreplaceable personal items, which should have been removed prior to the storm. Additionally, he says it's a good idea to remove vital paperwork, such as registration, insurance documents, and service history, from the boat. Should the worst happen, you'll be able to give this to your insurance company, making the claims process faster and smoother.

Also, Hill recommends taking pictures of your boat, highlighting any distinguishing features. These could prove useful to CAT team members as they search for your boat after a storm. Get photos of things like biminis, graphics, and the hull identification number, for instance. These can help CAT team members because boats can be partially sunk, seriously damaged, or destroyed, and what seems like an ordered existence goes out the window in the melee following a major storm, making it difficult to find a boat.

"Use the BoatUS online resources," he says. You can also sign up for email hurricane alerts, a storm tracker, and more. These can help you in deciding what to do, and when." The BoatUS App can also send you alerts, and if necessary, you can even start a claim directly from your smartphone, which can accelerate the process.

During the course of the last 35 years, BoatUS has learned a lot about storms, and we know that although each event is different, with the right preparations when the next "record" storm makes landfall, you can reduce the chances of your boat getting damaged or even destroyed. 

— Published: October/November 2018

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