Editorial-Opinion October 2017

Steve Burch | October 6, 2017

This has been a humbling and gratifying month for me personally. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of concern expressed by so many of you for me. I want to thank you all. And I want to let you all know that things are remarkably good.

The trigger was Hurricane Irma.

Some of you will recall that I am in the throws of setting up a southern base in Key West, Fla. I am not leaving Georgia, so much as I am spreading out to one of my favorite environments—the watery wilderness of Key West.

For so many, Irma has been a dream crusher. I was not down there when Irma came in. Like the rest of the nation, I could only sit, wait and wonder about what, if anything, would be left. In my case, the “what” is pretty simple. I have two boats in Key West.

One boat is a charter boat that is berthed in Historic Charter Boat Row, a part of the very well protected Garrison Bight. Charter Boat Row is, in my opinion, one of the two best hurricane-safe holes in the lower keys. The other spot is actually called Hurricane Hole Marina and sits just south of U.S. Highway 1.

The second boat will be home base when completed, and it will be berthed across the street from Charter Boat Row in a floating community called, appropriately, Houseboat Row. This houseboat requires work, so it has been sitting on blocks in a boat yard on neighboring Stock Island for the past year while I have been restoring it and beefing it up.

This boat is 60 feet long and 14 feet wide. It was built back in 2001 to move gracefully about waters like Lake Lanier. The walls are only 1 1/8-inch thick, and the windows are simply 1/16-inch thick smoked-lexan polycarbonate. The catamaran pontoon hulls on which the “house” sits are fiberglass and hollow. And the boat needs a new, better-insulated roof for the Key West climate.

The chief delay in restoring the houseboat has been the hulls. The boat is about to celebrate its first anniversary sitting in the boat yard waiting on me to finish it. The boat yard is at the end of a peninsula on Stock Island that juts out toward Cuba, directly into the Atlantic. This spot is just the opposite of a protected hurricane hole. It is surrounded on three sides by water.

And the boat was not tied down. Only gravity and friction held her in her spot in the boat yard. As boats go, she is very light for her surface area. Likely, the wind would be able to move the houseboat more easily than conventional sail or powerboats parked tightly together around the yard. If she fell, or floated off her blocks, she would be toast pretty quickly. Her name, once completed, will be “The Busted Flush.”

As Irma approached, I hoped that name would not prove to be prophetic.

Finally, there is the issue of boat insurance in a hurricane-prone area. Insurance policies typically contain an exclusion clause, essentially voiding insurance coverage from damages that occur relative to something called “a named-storm event.” Hurricanes fit nicely into that “named-storm” category.

So, as we all watched and waited to see what Irma might do, most property owners faced the growing storm knowing they were uninsured, or as insurance companies like to put it, self-insured.

In the game of hurricane dodgeball, the rules are inverted; you aren’t permitted to move, while the hurricane can knuckle ball anywhere it might.

Through the night and into the morning of Sept. 10, we all watched as Irma crawled her way up the north coast of Cuba and into the Florida Straits.

As she turned north, she wobbled just a few miles east of Key West, and then she cut the power and cut off all communication with the rest of us. Everything was dark static.

I remember thinking back to those tense moments in the early days of space exploration when, on re-entry, astronauts would go through a communication blackout period, during one of the riskiest moments of the flight. We could only wait and watch for a parachute.

Such was our plight until Sept. 13—four long days to wonder and wait. Then, two photos were posted online, one from a National Guard plane and one a satellite image taken by NOAA. Both boats were right where I left them. Damage is apparently minimal for me and my neighbors. Whew!

And thank you all for your concern and interest.

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