Nearly 1,000 recreational boats ripped from their docks and swept miles away by Sandy’s storm surge in New Jersey were deposited like damaged toys in empty marshes, front yards and wildlife refuges.
Those boats are the ones that authorities know about. They speculate there could be thousands more.
While the boats are valuable property and often treasured possessions, New Jersey residents hard hit by Sandy may be more focused on their homes than the loss of the boats.
A month later, fewer than 15 percent of boats have been reclaimed by their owners, according to State Police.
Salvaging the boats can be a difficult and time-consuming process.
Vessels and debris still litter the landscape at the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge.
Refuge staff have worked with owners and the State Police to remove about a dozen boats from the area, but the storm pushed many vessels into inaccessible areas of the refuge, manager Virginia Rettig said.
Aerial surveys show 130 vessels deposited in the refuge from Galloway Township north to Brick Township in Ocean County, Rettig said. The stretch shows a debris field 22 miles along the shoreline, with many of the boats thrown into the woods.
“When the storm surge came across the barrier islands, it picked up debris and boats, and then when it hit the tree line on the refuge and it finally reached some resistance, it all finally fell,” she said.
The displaced boats along the wreckage line at the edge of the marsh come with the issue of fuel that may be onboard or have spilled.
“We’re very concerned about leaking hazardous materials. Any boats that have been compromised during the storm, we have to be careful removing them to not further contaminate the refuge,” Rettig said.
If owners suspect their boats are displaced on the refuge, they must contact the refuge to receive a special use permit to go in and retrieve them, Rettig said.
“We need to make sure they remove the boat without causing further damage to the refuge. We have every intention of working with people to reunite them with their boats,” she said.
The task of reuniting boats with their owners has fallen largely to the New Jersey State Police Marine Services Bureau.
In the days and weeks after the Oct. 29 storm, the bureau began locating and cataloging displaced vessels, building a database of the boats and reaching out to the owners.
Sgt. Brian Polite, spokesman for the State Police, said the agency is mailing letters to boat owners as well as making follow-up phone calls for vessel removal.
But the process has been slow. State Police have identified about 950 boats and to date have received clarification that 12 to 15 percent of the displaced boats have been removed by owners.
“The number is constantly changing as to how many are identified and how many are removed,” said Polite, who added that the cost of removing the boats rests with the owners.
New Jersey State Police spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones said the number of displaced boats could be in the thousands.
In her fury, Hurricane Sandy threw boats around southern Ocean County waterways, land and marshes like they were toys. In the days after the storm hit, boats littered the shoulders of Route 72, were stuck under the Route 72 causeway, thrown on land and stranded on marshes in Barnegat Bay.
Long Beach Township Police Chief Michael Bradley said he and local emergency management personnel realized early on that the number of displaced vessels was going to be a serious issue.
Some boats stored for the winter season that were shrink-wrapped, tied in slips or were up on blocks at marinas and docks escaped unharmed during the storm, but some were ultimately taken by the water, Bradley said.
“I know of one boat that was shrink-wrapped that was taken off of a dry dock by the water and ended up capsized and back in the harbor slip area,” Bradley said.
The chief said police and township officials began working early on with marina owners to develop a plan that allowed marina owners access to Long Beach Island immediately after the storm to address safety issues at marinas and to go out into the community to identify boats that had broken away and were on land or at sea.
Township police also worked with State Police in identifying stranded boats in Barnegat Bay.
Progress has been made. Bradley said that during the first week following the storm, he flew in an Army helicopter over the southern end of Long Beach Island and saw 40 stranded boats. On a more recent ride, he saw only five.
Boats that were recovered from the island were stored in parking areas in the Brant Beach section of the township, the St. Francis Church parking lot and at marinas, Bradley said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection has coordinated with the U.S. Coast Guard to undertake the mission to remove fuel and oil from vessels that were leaking as a result of the storm, said spokesman Larry Hajna. DEP also worked with private contractors, including SeaTow and local marina owners to recover leaking vessels, Hajna said.
Most vessels that were displaced by the storm did not appear to leak, he said. At the time, the DEP was primarily focusing its efforts on leaking oil from heating tanks and drums after the storm hit and did not deal directly with emptying leaking vessels, he said.
Hajna said agencies do not yet have a clear idea of the number of vessels that were displaced or may have leaked during the storm.
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Locating lost boats
Boat owners or insurance companies attempting to locate a lost or abandoned vessel should contact the State Police Point Pleasant Station between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 732-899-5051.
If you know or suspect your boat has been displaced in the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, contact refuge manager Virginia Rettig at 609-652-1665 to secure a permit to access and remove it.