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After Hurricane Ian, Salvage Firm Pulls Yachts Out of Swimming Pools and Mangrove Trees

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Heather O’Brien makes a living rescuing small boats and yachts in the waters near Fort Myers, Fla. Since Hurricane Ian, she has been busy.

On a typical weekend this time of year, Ms. O’Brien might get a dozen or so calls for help, mostly from locals who need a tow because their boat ran out of gas or their battery was depleted. After Ian, she received more than 2,000 calls, many of a much more serious nature.

Heather O’Brien, general manager of Sea Tow Fort Myers, a boat-salvage business owned by her husband, Pat; they have been busy since Hurricane Ian blew through Florida earlier this month.



Photo:

Sea Tow Services International, Inc.

The Category 4 storm left boats and yachts of all sizes stuck between buildings or tangled in mangrove trees. Others were smashed into cars, or stacked on top of each other like pickup sticks.

Ms. O’Brien, general manager of Sea Tow Fort Myers, is now methodically helping extricate these stranded and sunken vessels from the land and sea, acting as part salvager, part psychologist to calm the nerves of emotional owners.

“I’m taking the time to speak to everyone who calls, to say: ‘I understand this is stressful,’” says Ms. O’Brien. “Please be patient.”

Hurricane Ian is expected to set a record for boat loss, surpassing superstorm Sandy, which in 2012 caused about $650 million in damage to about 65,000 boats, according to officials in the insurance, salvage and boating industries. The hurricane’s final tally probably won’t be known until after the monthslong process of extracting boats from where the storm deposited them, then either junking or repairing them.

Greg Smith, a Fort Myers resident, went looking for his 56-foot charter fishing boat the day after the hurricane and found it crushing a vehicle across the street from where his marina used to be. “This guy came up and said, ‘This your boat?’” Mr. Smith recalled. “I said: ‘Yep.’ He said: ‘You’re sitting on my car.’ I said: ‘Well, I couldn’t have helped that.’”

Gene Johnson, who has spent summers on his boat in Fort Myers, was at his main residence in White Bear Lake, Minn., when the storm hit. He saw a television newscast of a heavily damaged zone where his 63-foot yacht lay in the background. Its name, Front Page, was clearly visible.

“It was shocking,” he said. “For my wife, it was a lot of tears.”

Both Messrs. Smith and Johnson said that their boats are probably totaled and they aren’t planning to replace them. “It’s not the way I wanted to retire,” Mr. Smith said.

Ms. O’Brien said she often has to calm down boat owners and persuade them to wait for a professional to salvage their boat.



Photo:

Sea Tow Services International, Inc.

Ms. O’Brien said one of the hardest parts of the job is trying to calm down boat owners and persuade them to wait for professionals to salvage their boats, rather than accept offers from amateurs. A mishandled job can do more damage to a boat than the storm.

“Some people are using tractors. Some people are putting lines on trucks to yank it out the yard,” she said. “They just want your $5,000 and then want to move on to the next one.”

Still, much of the initial towing and untangling has fallen to marine-services businesses like the one owned by Ms. O’Brien’s husband, Pat O’Brien. Tools of the trade include cranes, barges, air bags and winches to place boats in trailers or, if they are seaworthy, in the water for a tow. Chain-saws are for when a vessel is beyond salvation and needs to fit into a dump truck.

The O’Briens’ business is one of 94 franchisees of Southold, N.Y.-based Sea Tow Services International Inc., which operates in over 100 boating locations throughout the country. When big hurricanes hit, Sea Tow typically boosts its operations in stricken areas by moving in teams from other regions.

Boat-salvage efforts had to wait in areas that were hardest-hit by Hurricane Ian, and many owners still haven’t located their vessels.



Photo:

ea Tow Services International, Inc.

Before Ian, the O’Briens never needed help from the parent company. They moved many of their rescue boats and salvage trailers to the family farm about 20 miles inland, lashing them to oak trees so they wouldn’t blow away.

The next morning, they had no phone or internet service. The Fort Myers office was damaged, forcing them to work out of the farm. When Ms. O’Brien finally was able to get a signal, she called Sea Tow Services’ chief executive,

Joseph Frohnhoefer III.

“I take it you haven’t seen any of the aerial photos yet,” he said to Ms. O’Brien, as she recalled it. “I’m getting some help for you.”

Sea Tow crews have been out on the water since the day after the storm hit. With reinforcements from other Sea Tow franchises, it now has four crews working with tow boats, barges, cranes, trailers and lift bags.

It has been slow going. Hard-hit areas were closed to salvage efforts for days. Many owners still don’t know where their boats are. If Hurricane Ian is like other megastorms, a few vessels will never be found.

Sea Tow’s trickiest salvages have included pulling a 26-foot, center-console boat out of a commercial building in Fort Myers Beach. Crews used a crane to avoid further damage to the vessel and property, lifting the boat to the back of a trailer.

Other boats have been wedged into swimming pools. Cranes and trailers have to be used to extract them, with straps that crews use to turn the boats after they are lifted.

The canal system in some of Florida’s hardest-hit areas has been overwhelmed. Salvage crews from different companies have to coordinate with each other to figure out the movement of barges and cranes to avoid traffic jams.

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Even tougher are the yachts stuck in or on thickets of mangroves, which are protected trees in the state. “The boats are sitting in the middle of these trees, literally, and you have to climb up in there” to figure out how to get them out, Ms. O’Brien said.

Ms. O’Brien, 36 years old, has been living in the Fort Myers area for close to two decades. She worked in the real-estate industry, but switched to a job at Sea Tow when the real-estate market was clobbered by the global financial crisis. The owner, a friend at the time, later became her husband.

The two haven’t been spending much time together lately. Mr. O’Brien spends the days with salvage crews, and she handles four phone lines that work off one mobile-phone service.

“We don’t see each other until it’s time to go to bed,” she said.

Write to Peter Grant at [email protected]

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