Salvage Crews Seek to Save Battered Boats

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Salvage crews are trying to rescue some of the estimated 12,000 boats tossed about by Hurricane Katrina. The story of one crew on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain shows what it's like to work in a world turned upside down.

SHEILAH KAST, host:

Amidst the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, there are all the boats, many of them in the most absurd places, boats on city streets, in living rooms, on top of roofs. Salvagers are in the process of recovering thousands of the vessels in the hurricane zone. NPR's Tom Goldman went along with one crew on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, 25 miles across the water from New Orleans.

(Soundbite of machinery)

Unidentified Man #1: Come in a little channel there, hang a left at your first left and at the end of that, looking for ...(unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #2: Roger that. Break, break.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

Hang a left at your first left. That's about the first you can expect these days for directions in the canals off Lake Pontchartrain. Boat salvager Keith Cummings pilots his small boat through a lakefront community in Slidell, Louisiana. He says it's tough because most of the street names and house numbers are gone.

Mr. KEITH CUMMINGS (Boat Salvager): This was a house. This was a house. That was a house. Every single one of these plots that you see--one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight--about a dozen houses here--that there's not a trace of.

GOLDMAN: For Keith Cummings, it's another day of working in a world turned upside-down. Twenty-five yards away a silver Mercedes sits in shallow water, a Bayliner boat sits in someone's yard. One hundred ninety-mile-per-hour wind gusts and a 26-foot surge of water from the lake did this damage. It's stunning, but Cummings has seen it a lot over the past two weeks. He runs a company called Sea Tow Services International, which has been recovering boats from Louisiana to Alabama.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GOLDMAN: On this sweltering day, several Sea Tow workers are trying to free a small pleasure boat dangling from the ceiling of a boathouse 10 feet above the water. The boat's seat is caught on one of the ceilings metal bars. They've run yellow straps along the bottom of the boat and they're using a winching device to lift the vessel higher in order to get the seat off the bar. Cummings says the boat is fairly light, 2,500 to 3,000 pounds, but after several minutes of lifting, it's obvious the boat is heavy enough.

(Soundbite of snapping noise)

Unidentified Man #3: Whoa.

GOLDMAN: One of the metal bars snaps.

Unidentified Man #4: Get us something here.

Unidentified Man #5: That's not going to hang it.

Unidentified Man #4: Get us something--we need something to go around it.

Unidentified Man #5: Something.

GOLDMAN: They fix the problem, resume lifting the boat, and finally dislodge the seat.

Unidentified Man #6: Good. Bring it on down.

GOLDMAN: A few minutes later the boat hangs about two feet above the water. There's one last strap to remove. Two men pull on it, one tries to push it off with a big block of wood.

Unidentified Man #7: You like that boat, I guess.

Unidentified Man #8: Almost.

Unidentified Man #9: Here it comes.

(Soundbite of boat breaking free, hitting water)

Unidentified Man #10: There you go.

GOLDMAN: Splashdown comes about 45 minutes after they started working on the boat. It was moderately difficult, says Cummings. Not the kind of job that requires a crane and a couple of days' work. This job, like most, was requested by an insurance company but every day they've been down here, Cummings and his workers have encountered people who walk up and ask for help, like Diane Lips(ph). She lives on the canal and owns two boats. As her husband talks to Cummings about salvaging them, Lips talks about her favorite, a 10-year-old 30-foot Chris-Craft that's been blown out of the water into some nearby condominiums.

Ms. DIANE LIPS: My other boat is very important because it's like a getaway, you know? Very important.

GOLDMAN: Cummings isn't sure he can help. Mrs. Lips' boat isn't insured. And Cummings has hundreds of jobs to do. But he says it's hard to say no.

Mr. CUMMINGS: If you look at the scale of devastation here, you have to think that the boating is just a small piece but it's their passion, and amidst all of the work they have to do to rebuild their homes and everything, I think it just symbolizes the life they had and the fun they had and that way they want to get back to.

GOLDMAN: While most of Sea Tow's recoveries are for recreational boats, they salvage commercial ones, as well. Cummings says he and his crew of about 50 will be along the Gulf Coast for the next three to four months, easily, salvaging nearly 3,000 of what he estimates are 10 to 12,000 vessels strewn in Katrina's wake.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

KAST: In Mississippi, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials estimate that Hurricane Katrina left an expanse of debris totalling approximately 20 million cubic yards. According to Reuters, there's debris from 23 counties and it would cover roughly the equivalent of 200 football fields piled 50 feet high.

It's 18 minutes past the hour.

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