*Updated- See Below* Nearly 50 boats that sunk or went aground in federal waters when hurricanes Irma and Maria struck will soon be removed, according to Steve Black, acting superintendent for the Virgin Islands National Park.
A team of salvage operators from the U.S. Navy completed a three-day preliminary visit to the territory on April 19 and inspected every boat that had sunk or was ashore in park waters on St. John and St. Thomas, Black said. They’ve set June as a target date for wrapping up operations.
The salvage operation is set to begin “As soon as we give them the check,” Black said. The paperwork is now working its way through Washington where “A letter from the Secretary of the Interior [on behalf of the National Park Service] will be taken across the street to the Secretary of Defense.”
Although the hurricanes hit in September 2017, boats stranded or sunk in waters managed by the National Park Service could not be removed by officials until Congress approved the federal budget. That measure, which passed in January 2018, included $90 billion in funding for disaster relief.
The US. Navy is the salvager for the United States Government, according to Black. “They do things for the National Transportation Board.”
The Navy salvage team will need 20 days to sail their equipment, including barges and cranes, to the territory. Black said, “The operation will look a lot like the one completed by Resolve Marine,” the contractor which removed 169 boats from St. John earlier this year.
Resolve Marine, working under the direction the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the U.S. Coast Guard, removed a total of almost 477 vessels from territorial waters on all three islands as of March 16. That operation was funded by FEMA. Of the 477, there were 230 assignments closed off St. Thomas, 167 assignments closed off St. John and 80 assignments closed off St. Croix.
Response teams removed 3,668 hazardous chemical containers, recovered 12,449 gallons of fuel/oil waste and removed 309 batteries from the recovered vessels.
However, the National Park Service was prevented from participating because of legal requirements set forth in the Stafford Act, which prohibits federal agencies from using FEMA funding.
The National Park Service (NPS) has been contacting the owners of the estimated 50 boats still sunk or aground in federal waters since October, Black said. The majority are in Hurricane Hole on the East End of St. John. Six boats are aground in Mary Creek and Leinster Bay, and six are sunk or ashore at Hassel Island on St. Thomas.
Many boat owners were able to successfully complete their own salvage operations, but several vessels remain tangled in a heap in Hurricane Hole.
“There are boats that were trapped at the bottom but are just fine,” Black said.
When the Navy arrives, it’s “bring your own barge” for owners who wish to keep their boats that aren’t seaworthy, said Black. All salvaged boats that are not taken away by their owners will be transported to a Navy barge for removal and disposal.
The push to remove all boats from NPS waters comes just in time for boat owners to make plans for the upcoming storm season which officially begins June 1.
The NPS will be holding a lottery on June 2 to give boat owners the opportunity to tie in to the storm chain in Hurricane Hole which remained intact despite the devastating wind and waves of Irmaria.
“Our chain is fine,” Black said. “Our divers inspected every inch of it. What broke were people’s ties. I talked to one boat owner who put down nine straps—and two of them held,” he said.
The text of the NPS press release for registration for Hurricane Hole is as follows:
Virgin Islands National Park and Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument announce procedures for mariners wishing to register their vessel in Hurricane Hole for the 2018 hurricane season.
Vessel owners who were permitted to use a storm mooring in Hurricane Hole during 2017 and who wish to retain their storm mooring berth for the 2018 season must complete an application to renew their berth for 2018. Applications may be downloaded at the monument web page, www.nps.gov/vicr/learn/management/hurricane-hole-storm-refuge.htm, or picked up at the NPS Visitor Center in Cruz Bay.
Please contact the Resource Management and Interpretation Admin Support Assistant at 340-776-6201 extension 239 or email us at [email protected] with any questions regarding a 2018 application. Completed applications may be sent via e-mail, U.S. Mail, or delivered in person at the park visitor center between 8:30 am to 4:30 pm and must be received by the park by May 22, 2018. Applications may be mailed to Virgin Islands National Park, 1300 Cruz Bay Creek, St. John, VI 00830. The NPS will issue a new permit upon receipt of the application and verification of the 2018 berth assignment.
A drawing will be held for all open berths on June 2nd, 2018, beginning at 9:00 a.m. at the pavilion in front of the NPS Visitor Center in Cruz Bay. A vessel owner who was issued a 2017 permit and whose vessel was rendered unsalvageable by the 2017 hurricanes may renew the permit for their new vessel. They may also renew their berth but relinquish it for temporary use in 2018, to allow time to replace their vessel.
Any vessel owner who was issued a temporary permit last year may contact Ms. Francis if interested in retaining the storm mooring berth for which they were issued the temporary permit, in the event that the original permittee decides to relinquish the berth for another year. Should the original permittee elect to utilize that berth this year, the temporary permit holder would need to participate in the June 2nd drawing to compete for open berths.
Note that if a vessel was sold or transferred during the past year, it is the vessel which retains the storm mooring berth and not the past owner. Please contact the Resource Management and Interpretation Admin Support Assistant at (340) 776-6201 extension 239 should you have any questions.
Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect an updated number of vessels removed from territorial waters, and the amount of hazardous waste and pollutants removed from those vessels.
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