The Belle Miracle Ann, one of South Jersey’s oddest roadside attractions, has become an even more surreal sight in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
To passers-by, the historic steamer seemed more suited for the mighty Mississippi than the back bays of Egg Harbor Township. Now it sits on dry land several hundred feet from its former moorings off Somers Point-Longport Boulevard, a result of the storm’s massive surge.
“She weathered the storm fine,” said Leonard Dagit Jr., who docked the steamer next to his Back Bay Barbeque. “But now she’s in a new parking spot.”
While the Belle Miracle Ann’s size and history set it apart, its predicament is not unique. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, about 1,400 vessels were washed inland by the storm in October, and the cleanup continues.
“Many of them have washed up into lagoons, inlets and creeks,” DEP spokesman Larry Ragonese said.
Removing them, he said, “is the first step in a massive wet debris-removal effort.”
The Belle Miracle Ann, recognizable for its twin crown-topped smokestacks and fire-engine-red paddle, will not be subject to those efforts since it’s located on private land, not obstructing a navigable waterway. But the sight of the familiar vessel canted to one side sets an apocalyptic tone for the storm-ravaged neighborhood of Anchorage Poynte.
During the storm, Dagit said, the Belle Miracle Ann was battered by a continuous volley of waves until nearby piling were beaten down and the vessel was loosed from its moorings. The waves eventually carried the vessel, which was built in 1925 as the Belle Anne Marie and has traveled the Mississippi and Hudson rivers, up onto dry land.
“We really had the boat set up and protected for the northeasters, which are the common storms here,” he said. “We never imagined we’d see the winds out of the south, but that’s just the nature of hurricanes — the winds come from all directions.”
Dagit said the cost to hoist the steamer out of its new resting place and back to the lagoon — estimated at $60,000 — won’t be covered by his liability insurance. He’s currently awaiting word on possible funding through the Small Business Administration or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Ragonese said the DEP, in partnership with State Police, has identified and removed about 1,000 vessels. The remaining 400, many of them in the Barnegat Bay area, are being towed away by a private contractor that will be reimbursed by FEMA.
The Belle Miracle Ann would be a special case, not subject to the DEP’s removal efforts because it is on dry land, he said. Those efforts are focused on the state’s waterways.
“If it’s on his property, then it’s not really an abandoned boat we’d be picking up,” he said. “If it was moved a quarter-mile to some lagoon or inlet, we’d have to figure out what to do.”
The state has not issued any enforcement actions with regard to the Belle Miracle Ann.
It was first brought to the back bays of Egg Harbor Township in 2005 by Hosrof “Sonny” Bagraduni, the Armenian-American owner of a West Atlantic City hotel. Bagraduni died in 2008 before he could realize his dream of renovating the vessel — then known as the Tarlan Rose — as a floating event hall.
Two years later, Dagit purchased the boat, renamed it the Belle Miracle Ann and towed it to its location near the entrance to Anchorage Poynte. The steamer has mostly served as a draw for curiosity seekers, although Dagit also has plans to renovate it.
Dagit said having the vessel in dry dock may help the renovation process, allowing him to paint the entire hull.
“The boat’s completely high and dry at high tide now,” he said.
Dagit said he’s currently tied up with another of his family’s businesses — lifting houses. He also needs to make repairs to his home, restaurant and an adjacent rental property.
He said one home in the Anchorage Poynte community was completely destroyed, another floated off its foundation and others have damaged foundations, including one of his rental properties. Dagit’s own home is still without heat.
“The boat hasn’t been a priority,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to get my home straightened out and my business back and running.”
Regardless, Dagit said he hopes to have the Belle Miracle Ann treading water again, probably once the warm weather returns.
“We’re faced with how to get it back in the water,” he said. “Obviously, we don’t want to scrap it if we can avoid it.”
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