Heather O’Brien makes a living salvaging 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 can get a dozen calls for help, mostly from locals who need a tow because their boat ran out of gas or their battery died. After Ian, she received more than 2,000 calls, many of a much more serious nature.
The Category 4 storm left boats and yachts of all sizes stuck between buildings or entangled in mangrove trees. Others were smashed into cars or stacked on top of each other like pickup sticks.
Mrs. O’Brien, general manager of Sea Tow Fort Myers, now methodically helps free these stranded and sunken vessels from land and sea, acting as part salvage, part psychologist to calm the nerves of emotional owners.
“I take the time to talk to everyone who calls to say, ‘I understand this is stressful,'” Ms. O’Brien says. “Be patient.”
Hurricane Ian is expected to set a record for boat losses, surpassing Superstorm Sandy, which in 2012 caused about $650 million in damage to about 65,000 boats, according to insurance, salvage and boating industry officials. The hurricane’s final toll likely won’t be known until after the months-long process of recovering the boats from where the storm deposited them, then either junking or repairing them.
Greg Smith, a Fort Myers resident, was looking for his 56-foot charter fishing boat the day after the hurricane and found it smashed into a vehicle across the street from where his marina used to be. “This guy came up and said, ‘This is your boat?'” recalled Mr. Smith. “I said, ‘Yes’. He said, ‘You’re sitting on my car.’ I said, ‘Well, I couldn’t help it’.”
Gene Johnson, who spends summers on his boat in Fort Myers, was at his main residence in White Bear Lake, Minn., when the storm hit. He watched a television news broadcast of a heavily damaged zone, his 63-foot yacht lying in the background. Its name, Forside, was clearly visible.
“It was shocking,” he said. “For my wife, it was a lot of tears.”
Both Messrs. Smith and Johnson said their boats are likely to be totaled and they do not plan to replace them. “It was not the way I wanted to retire,” said Mr. Smith.
Mrs. O’Brien said one of the hardest parts of the job is trying to reassure boat owners and persuade them to wait for professionals to salvage their boats, rather than accepting offers from amateurs. A mishandled job can do more damage to a boat than the storm.
“Some people use tractors. Some people put lines on trucks to pull it out of the yard,” she said. “They just want your $5,000 and then they want to move on to the next one.”
Still, much of the initial towing and sorting out has fallen to marine service companies like the one owned by Ms. O’Brien’s husband, Pat O’Brien. Trade tools include cranes, barges, airbags and winches to place boats on trailers or, if seaworthy, in the water for towing. Chainsaws 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, NY-based Sea Tow Services International Inc., which operates at over 100 marinas nationwide. When major hurricanes hit, Sea Tow typically augments its operations in affected areas by moving teams from other regions.
Before Ian, the O’Briens never needed help from the parent company. They moved many of their lifeboats and recovery trailers to the family farm about 20 miles inland and lashed 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 yard. When Ms. O’Brien was finally able to get a signal, she called Sea Tow Services’ CEO, Joseph Frohnhoefer III.
“I take it you haven’t seen any of the aerial photos yet,” he told Mrs O’Brien when she remembered. “I’ll get you some help.”
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 tugs, barges, cranes, trailers and lift bags.
It has been slow. Hard-hit areas were closed to salvage for days. Many owners still do not know where their boats are. If Hurricane Ian is like other megastorms, a few vessels will never be found.
Sea Tow’s most difficult 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, and lifted the boat onto the back of a trailer.
Other boats have been wedged into swimming pools. Cranes and trailers must be used to pull them out, with straps used by crews to turn the boats after they are lifted.
The sewer system in some of Florida’s hardest hit areas has been overwhelmed. Salvage crews from different companies must coordinate with each other to figure out the movement of barges and cranes to avoid traffic jams.
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Even tougher are 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 in there” to figure out how to get them out, Ms. O’Brien.
Mrs. O’Brien, 36 years old, has lived in the Fort Myers area for nearly two decades. She worked in the property industry but switched to a job at Sea Tow when the property market was hit 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 her days with salvage crews, and she handles four phone lines that operate outside of a cell phone service.
“I won’t see you until it’s time to go to bed,” she said.
—Deborah Acosta contributed to this article.
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