Marina battered by Hurricane Isaias asks NC boat owners to pay up. Now they’re suing

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When Hurricane Isaias spilled onto North Carolina’s coastline in August, dozens of boats were left piled on top of one another at a small marina in Southport.

A few even blew into nearby marshland.

“I’m not gonna sugar-coat it y’all, it’s been a roller coaster of a day for the Southport Marina team,” manager Hank Whitley said in a Facebook post after the storm had passed on Aug. 4, adding, “our docks are devastated, boats are scattered, facility has significant damage, but our spirit is very much in tact.”

Nearly a year later, the owners of those boats are suing to stop the marina from trying to collect millions of dollars in damages they said have been falsely attached to them.

More than 100 boat owners filed a complaint in federal court on Monday saying they shouldn’t have to foot the bill for the cost of salvaging their vessels and damages to the piers and docks, pointing to poor maintenance and the marina’s alleged lack of insurance.

“The marina (has) determined to blame its own customers — the owners of the very same boats its failed piers and docks had damaged — for the failure of its piers and docks,” attorneys for the boat owners said in the lawsuit.

Robin R. Rose with Preston Development Company, which owns the marina, told McClatchy News it was “destroyed to the tune of five-plus-million dollars because the boats were in the Marina.”

“The Marina would have been OK if the boats had not been there,” he said. “Now that we have been sued, we look forward to the court reviewing and analyzing the facts of this case and the law that applies.”

Isaias made landfall on Aug. 3 as a Category 1 hurricane near Ocean Isle Beach in Brunswick County, less than 30 miles from Southport. It unleashed at least 9 tornadoes and left a trail of damage along the state’s coastal towns, including significant flooding on Oak Island.

Southport sits at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, just across the intracoastal waterway from Oak Island.

When Isaias ripped through town, the storm surge was strong enough to cart a 7-foot-tall barge into the pool of an oceanfront hotel in Southport, McClatchy News previously reported.

At the nearby marina, several dozen boats were piled up “in a massive jumble,” attorneys said in Monday’s lawsuit.

“Others — a number of which were still tied to their piers — were flung into nearby marshland or deposited high and dry ashore,” the complaint states. “A few, still tied to their assigned piers, were otherwise scattered within the Marina’s basin.”

Lawyers for the 125 named plaintiffs said the marina didn’t tell the owners beforehand to move their boats, something it had reportedly done for other named storms.

Instead, they said the marina “downplayed the storm’s severity” and didn’t discourage them “from riding out the storm aboard their respective vessels at the marina.”

The attorneys said the marina’s piers and docks should have been designed to withstand hurricanes but were “at or near the end of their service life” and “poorly maintained.” As a result, they “failed catastrophically” when Isaias hit.

They said Southport Marina didn’t have property insurance and is trying to foist the bill on the boat owners.

In March, the lawsuit states owners began receiving notices from the marina outlining the cost of salvaging their boats and rebuilding the docks and piers. The notices stated the total cost of rebuilding Southport Marina was more than $3 million. The owners’ bills ranged from $8,000 to $25,000 based on the length of their boats, court filings show.

The notices were accompanied by a letter from a consulting engineer firm in Wilmington that reviewed the damage.

In it, the firm noted the marina’s dock and mooring system had previously survived 11 tropical storms between 2007 and 2019 and determined it “met industry standards.”

“If the vessels had vacated the marina, the pilings would not have been overstressed with the storm conditions, and the marina mooring system would not have failed,” the letter said.

But the lawsuit states the marina hasn’t provided any evidence as to the specific damages caused by individual boats nor the expenses incurred by salvaging them. Rose said Friday they “voluntarily provided voluminous materials” to the boat owners’ attorneys “long before we were sued.”

“We can readily demonstrate that and look forward to doing so,” he said. “Any suggestion that we did not provide that information is just not so.”

Monday’s lawsuit claims for declaratory relief and asks the judge to issue an order finding the boat owners are not liable for the cost of salvage services and damages.

As of Friday, court documents show Southport Marina has not responded to the allegations.