Hurricane Season 2017 - Field Report

November 13, 2017

It's been a good month since the Caribbean and parts of Florida were hit by three hurricanes in the heaviest categories within a very short period of time. IRMA and MARIA caused enormous destruction almost everywhere. In addition to housing and infrastructure, countless boats and yachts also fell victim to wind and flood in the popular water sports areas.

On behalf of Pantaenius, Europe's leading yacht insurance specialist, a team of employees from the Marine Claims Service (MCS) expert's office set off for the affected areas only a few days after the first hurricane had passed. Their mission: to identify the ships of Pantaenius customers, to assess damage and, where possible, to coordinate the first salvage operations. What they experienced on site, however, shocked even the professionals who had been familiar with accumulation losses for decades. Pantaenius used the opportunity to ask two of the MCS employees about their experiences.

Pantaenius: How did you plan to get to Hurricane Irma in a crisis region, such as the Caribbean, which is largely isolated from the outside world?

MCS: The plan was to fly from Hamburg and Madrid, via Puerto Rico, to Tortola. A catamaran chartered especially for our company would be waiting for us there, which we wanted to use as a means of transport and accommodation during the time. However, when we arrived in San Juan, all flights to the BVIs were cancelled. The Tortola airport was no longer usable for large aircraft due to the hurricane. It took a lot of persuasive power and some time until the pilot of a small propeller aircraft agreed to fly us to Tortola. After two days, we finally arrived at Beef Island, where the captain of the chartered catamaran was waiting for us.

Pantaenius: What was your first impression of the situation on site?

MCS: At Tortola airport, we could see endless queues of people coming down from the island. The certainty that we were heading for what these people had just left behind so hurriedly gave everyone a little bit of a queasy feeling. The massive military presence quickly made it clear that this was a serious crisis situation. The British Navy was there with a huge posse and landing boats, having arrived only two days before us. So the soldiers' clean-up work had just begun. 

At our first station Virgin Gorda, which we called on the same day, we witnessed the devastation immediately. Nearly all ships stored on shore—whether they were standing on pallwoods or with the keel in a pit in the ground—were upset. The masts were broken and lay criss-crossed over and underneath the ships. In the water, numerous ships had sunk or lay on the concrete pier. The buildings around the marina were almost completely destroyed. Few people, still in shock, walked through the harbor and started to clean up without any noticeable structure. The challenge of this accumulation damage quickly became obvious.

Pantaenius: A few days after Hurricane Irma's passage, the next devastating storm was already looming with Maria. How did this affect your work on site?

MCS: After our work on Virgin Gorda was finished, and all the ships we were looking for—as well as their visible damage—had been identified, we sailed to Tortola. In Fat Hogs Bay we didn’t think finding a specific ship would be a difficult task. However, upon entering the bay, we sawabout 200 ships—partly on the beach on the rocks, partly broken or sunk into several parts and partly swimming upside down. Sheer luck enabled us to find the catamaran after about 30 minutes; it was capsized and partly sunk. After we had uncovered the name of the ship, which was now covered with algae, we were able to identify it. 

In the course of the afternoon, there was growing evidence that the next hurricane "MARIA" was approaching. At that time. we were still hoping to be able to get into Paraquita Bay, a well known Hurricane Hole on Tortola. That would be our next destination in the afternoon. 

When approaching the entrance to this bay, however, it became clear that nothing could come of our project. The entrance was blocked by mangroves and other flotsamples, so that it was impossible to imagine a 10 m wide catamaran entering the harbour. But abandoning the catamaran and the associated infrastructure was not an option. As neither the BVIs nor Puerto Rico could have offered safe protection against Hurricane Maria, we sailed south at night. Four hundred nautical miles later, we reached the island of Bequia and crossed Maria's train just in time. This was a correct decision, as the extent of the destruction on Dominica soon made clear.

Pantaenius: What was a typical working day on site like? 

MCS: Usually, our working day began with the first sunlight, because as soon as the sun went down, it became so dark within minutes that it was no longer possible to work on land. In addition, there was a curfew at night, especially on St. Martin and Tortola. Some looting had already taken place immediately after the hurricane had passed through, and the military took resolute action to enforce these conditions. 

From the catamaran, we went every morning by RIB to the bays and harbors, where we suspected the ships we were looking for would be. Often, this was like a search for "the needle in the haystack," because the existing location information was not very meaningful, or the ships were in completely different places. Since we were able to approach the ships and shipyards almost exclusively from the water side, we often had to draw attention to ourselves first to avoid being attacked by guard dogs or be considered as looters at the first step through the "back door". If we were able to identify ships, we stored their location by GPS and inspected the damage visible from the outside. Depending on the local conditions, it was then a matter of planning possible salvage operations with the available companies or possibly declaring the yacht a total loss. The former usually turned out to be difficult, if not impossible.

Until now, there had been a lack of storage space for salvaged yachts, staff in the clean-up operations and repair shops, and access with heavy equipment. In many cases, the appropriate salvage equipment from the shipyards' stock had been confiscated by the military. In any case, we left the complete data records of the identified yachts with the operators of the marinas in order to be able to coordinate a later handling more easily. 

At sunset we set off with the RIB again towards the catamaran, which had gradually turned into a real oasis for us. After all, unlike most of the island's remaining population, we had access to fresh water and were able to escape the increasingly biting stench and mosquitoes. The documentation of the surveyed damage was mostly carried out until late in the evening hours in order to be able to send as much information as possible to Hamburg in time. Unfortunately, the disastrously slow or non-existent internet connection often thwarted this calculation. The French military installed mobile radio masts to support NGOs' relief efforts, but the transmitters were switched off at night to save electricity and relieve the generators.

Pantaenius: What is the biggest challenge on site at present?

MCS: Certainly the extent and distribution of the damage. From previous accumulation losses, such as Hurricane Ivan in 2004, we know the scenario that a hurricane of the highest category can trigger. Hurricane Irma, however, raged over the Caribbean islands as a low pressure area the size of France. The spatial distribution of the damage therefore makes the work in this case much more complex. The general destruction of infrastructure—such as roads, bridges and port entrances—also far exceeds the cases we are aware of and has the consequence that resources and personnel are currently tied up in the reconstruction process for several months to come. 

Even if the shipyards could actually reopen in the foreseeable future and start operations again, the range of services available there is not usually comparable with those in Germany or the surrounding area of Europe. As a rule, it is more likely to be a deposit for boats and yachts. Handicraft enterprises must also be hired, and those are a scarce commodity. For example, there is currently only one rigger on St. Martin, and the situation looks similar on the surrounding islands. Flying in qualified personnel is, again, a time-consuming and costly process, as work permits and corresponding visas are required. Thus, there is not only a chronic shortage of just about everything needed for salvage, but also an enormous need for coordination with regard to repairs. It remains to be seen how the infrastructure on the islands will develop in the next few weeks. This is where our crisis-proven network comes into its own. Even before departure, we were able to reach some local contacts.

Missing storage bins are also a logistical problem that still needs to be solved. The storage contracts of the boats that have survived hurricanes on land and are still buoyant, or could be made buoyant with little effort, will run until the end of the hurricane season. So it will not be possible to let these floating boats down to make room for the salvaged ships. Within the lagoon of St. Maarten, many storage places are only limitedly accessible on the water side due to the damaged bridges.

Pantaenius: And in the future? How will work on the yachts on the islands continue?

MCS: We still have a team on Tortola in action, and we will leave for the Caribbean to coordinate and continue our work. Of the ships damaged on shore, a large number are certainly technically repairable. Where, with which personnel and in what time frame is still completely open, however. Certainly, we may be able to carry out some repairs with the possibilities available on site. However, capacities are very limited. 

Similarly, there is certainly the possibility of flying in repair personnel—for example from Europe—to a small extent and after consultation with the parking space rental companies. However, as already mentioned, the questions of work permits, accommodation and material procurement would have to be clarified first. 

However, the number of masts required alone is likely to exceed the usual annual production of the few producers worldwide by a multiple. It is unclear to what extent the manufacturers' production capacities can be increased in the short term. It is irrelevant whether the other repairs on the ship are now being carried out in the Caribbean, in the USA or in Europe.

We receive new information every day. It will therefore be some time before we have a concrete course of action. Owners of affected yachts must therefore continue to be patient, however difficult that may be.

Pantaenius: Thank you for the interview. A few closing words? What was the most impressive thing you experienced on the islands?

MCS: There are so many impressions that we have brought back from the region and which will certainly accompany us privately: Soldiers who unload their heavy equipment on the beach with landing boats or helicopters that fly over the island at night without any low-level lighting and search for suspicious movements with infrared cameras. But what has perhaps impressed us most is the pragmatism of the locals. "I survived," is the common answer to the question of "How are you doing?"

One of the first public squares to reopen after Hurricane St. Martin was a bar. This became a marketplace, internet hotspot, communication center and place for all who were looking for friends or relatives. We also witnessed very emotional moments—moments in which we have repeatedly been reminded that the priority of local authorities and governments is rightly not in the maritime sector at the moment.