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Recovering what was lost in the U.S. Virgin Islands, one boat at a time

Grounded boats at Cruz Bay in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dec. 7, 2017. The hurricanes that raged through the Virgin Islands in September damaged or destroyed hundreds of boats that were people's livelihoods and even homes. [Erika P. Rodriguez | New York Times]
Published Dec. 29, 2017

The wrecks lie half-sunk in marinas, fully submerged in coves, tangled in mangrove roots, tossed akilter against trees, or piled atop one another, a jumble of punctured hulls, snapped masts and bent propellers.

The hurricanes that raged through the U.S. Virgin Islands in September damaged or destroyed not only thousands of buildings, but also hundreds of boats, from tiny sailboats to 50-foot luxury yachts.

In a territory that is heavily dependent on tourism, where no spot is more than 3 miles from the sea, boats are as integral to the economy as the islands' beaches and their now-battered hotels. Boats are the livelihoods and even the homes of many residents, and for the mainlanders who leave their vessels there year-round, they are a big reason to spend time and money on the islands.

"Even if our boat had made it, we would really be struggling, because the customers aren't here," said Justin Cofield, 34, an owner of St. John Yacht Charters, whose 46-foot sailing sloop, Survivan, was destroyed.

He and his partner, Ashley Coerdt, had insurance on the boat, and they want to use the money to buy another one, "but it would not be a good business move right now," Cofield said. "The timing depends on how fast St. John bounces back, how fast the tourists come back, and nobody knows the answers yet."

Three months after the Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the islands, about half the customers remain without electricity, and about one-quarter of the territory still lacks cellphone service. Thousands of homes and other buildings were damaged or destroyed; the total number is unknown, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has installed 3,600 temporary blue plastic roofs, and 11,000 families have applied for disaster assistance.

Among the many arduous tasks that remain in their early stages are identifying the owners of lost boats, recovering the vessels, salvaging those that can be fixed and disposing of the rest.

The U.S. Coast Guard has identified 459 boats in the U.S. Virgin Islands, population 106,000, that were left derelict by the storms — more than in nearby Puerto Rico, which has more than 30 times as many residents.

That figure understates the true number of wrecks. The Army Corps of Engineers removed some early on because they posed a threat to navigation, and the Coast Guard is still finding more boats.

In Benner Bay on St. Thomas and Coral Harbor on St. John, as many as 50 boats in each location lie thrown together. "We don't know what's under there," said Cmdr. David J. Reinhard, the Coast Guard officer directing the salvage operation.

"It's very likely we're going to find many more," he said.

Commercial vessels like Survivan were required to have insurance, but most of the boats owned for personal use were uninsured.

"I couldn't afford the insurance, and neither could just about anyone I know," said Philip Faulkenberry, 57, who lived alone on his 41-foot ketch rig sailboat, Nugget 2. Hurricane Maria ripped it from its moorings at Christiansted, on St. Croix, and deposited it on a beach, leaning against the roots of an upturned tree. After the storm, he said, people stripped it of anything of value.

The day before the hurricane hit, he flew to Louisiana, where he grew up, for temporary work in an oil refinery. Three days later, the company that had hired him sent him back to the Virgin Islands to work on a damaged refinery there.

"When I got off the plane, I couldn't believe it — it looked like Hiroshima or Nagasaki," he said. "There wasn't a leaf on a tree, not a blade of grass."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency denied his claim for housing assistance, he said, because the storm took the paperwork he had that showed that the boat was his home. So for months, he has slept on an air mattress in a backroom of the scooter store and bar he owns.

He said his business, which was also looted, had only liability insurance, so he was not covered for damage or lost inventory. Like many people in the territory, he thinks about closing up shop and relocating to the mainland.

"I think I'll go work at least a few months in the States to build up some cash," he said. "I plan to come back, and I want to come back, but honestly, I can't see how I can get back to where I was financially."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's mandate for responding to disasters includes preventing or responding to hazardous material spills; that means recovering boats, which often have fuel, oil, batteries and other pollutants aboard. Boat salvage is delegated to the state or local environmental agency — in this case, the Virgin Islands' Department of Planning and Natural Resources — and the Coast Guard. The costs are covered by a federal grant.

"We raise them, clean them, take all the potential hazards off, and return them to their owners when we can," said Chief David Mosley, a spokesman for the Coast Guard operation. "They range from being in pretty good condition to total losses."

About 100 people have been engaged in the effort, Reinhard said, and it has been slow going. Fewer than one-third of the boats have been recovered ? primarily by the Coast Guard, but also by boat owners and their insurers — and many of the recovered boats were damaged so badly that the owners declined to take them back.

One of the first and most difficult jobs has been finding those owners. The Coast Guard has located only about 60 percent of them despite extensive public outreach, including through ads on radio, television and websites, and by simply having personnel walk through marinas, talking with people.

Some owners have been reluctant to step forward because they expect to be charged for the salvage, or because they are unsure what to do with their property once they get it back. Others live on the mainland or in other countries.

Private contractors do most of the recovery of damaged or sunken boats, using barges with cranes, and scuba divers who attach pontoons and inflatable air bags to wrecks. Vessels that sank or were grounded in environmentally sensitive areas are handled with particular care.

The work is expected to take many months. The limited number of qualified contractors are stretched thin, with thousands of storm-tossed boats needing to be recovered along the coasts of Florida, Texas and numerous Caribbean islands.

Another big challenge looms in the distance: The Department of Planning and Natural Resources has to decide what to do with unclaimed boats.


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