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Two months after Hurricane Ian, boats are still being extricated from trees, houses and the sea

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hurricane Ian displaced thousands of boats in southwestern Florida. Some were stacked up on top of one another like pancakes. Others ended up inside homes. Still others sunk to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Chris Remington from member station WAMU reports salvage firms are still working to put them back where they belong more than two months after the storm.

CHRIS REMINGTON, BYLINE: Captain Cathy Eagle has lived on the small island of Matlacha for 30 years. She runs a tour boat business.

CATHY EAGLE: This tour would typically be called the Matlacha Back Bay Echo Tour. Now the whole landscape has changed. It's more like the Matlacha Back Bay Disaster Tour.

REMINGTON: Eagle's with me for a ride about two weeks after Hurricane Ian bashed Florida. Like on land, the destruction is evident at sea. In just a few minutes' time, we dodge a partially submerged boat that the storm deposited offshore. We see one dangling from a hoist. Eagle spots one tangled in the mangrove trees.

EAGLE: Do you get a crane in there? How do you get access to it?

JORDAN POTTS: I got a call on this one, actually.

REMINGTON: That's Jordan Potts. He helps run a boat salvage company in the Fort Myers area, and he came along for the ride.

POTTS: We were discussing bringing a very large crane in.

EAGLE: You would have to come by land, wouldn't you?

REMINGTON: These are just a few of the some 7,000 boats Hurricane Ian damaged or destroyed. When Potts and I caught up on the phone last week, he said the demand to rescue boats during the last two months is like nothing tow companies in southwest Florida have ever experienced.

POTTS: Oh, my God, dude. It's going to be another, like, six months to a year of cleanup. It's actually incredible - crap. Let me take a quick call.

REMINGTON: Potts had to hang up to take a call for a salvage request. In fact, we had to reschedule three times because he was so busy.

POTTS: I've had a lot of people that are starting to show up. And they're like, oh, my God, I can't believe that it's not closer to being done than this. You know, multiple barge and crane services raising boats.

REMINGTON: Potts says many snowbirds returning to Florida for the winter boating season are shocked that their boats haven't been repaired. While it puts a kink in their winter plans, it's been life-changing for many retirees who moved to Florida to spend their days out on the water, like Paul Erb. About a month ago, Erb watched as Potts' crew rescued his sailboat.

PAUL ERB: The wind switched around to the west, and that's when it blew it up on the land. I got to stop.

REMINGTON: Erb had to stop because it was still too upsetting to talk about. He and his wife retired from New Jersey to Fort Myers to spend months every year sailing this boat around the Caribbean.

ADAM GUTHRIE: What we need to do is get some lift out of the boat with lifting bags.

REMINGTON: Adam Guthrie, a rescue diver on Potts' crew, uses scuba gear to tie inflatable bags to Erb's boat.

GUTHRIE: What I was told, it has a fractured keel. So that being said, you want to prevent any more damage that you possibly can.

REMINGTON: After 5 hours, Adam gets the boat to float and tows it to a repair shop, where it still sits with the broken keel untouched. Potts says boat repair shops are inundated. Just a few days ago, he dropped off another boat.

POTTS: They called us back and said, you need to tow this boat back to the gentleman's home. It's going to be 3 to 4 months until we can have the parts or the people to work on it.

REMINGTON: So Potts says they returned it. The owner, like the thousands of boaters in southwest Florida, is, suffice it to say, extremely frustrated by the pace of repairs. But Potts does see a glimmer of hope. He spotted a few more boats back out on the water on recent weekends, with families finding fun while the region recovers. For NPR News, I'm Chris Remington in Fort Myers, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Chris Remington
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