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Hurricane Matthew caused more damage than originally thought

Photo: A storm-damaged dock in John’s Island.

A last-minute shift in course spared Vero Beach from devastation when Hurricane Matthew blew by in early October. The core of the monster storm missed Indian River County by about 40 miles. High winds blew down trees and tore up area beaches, but largely spared homes and businesses.  Vero Beach breathed a huge sigh of relief.

But it turns out more destruction was caused by Hurricane Matthew than most people realized.

A heavy storm surge that came in through the Sebastian Inlet, wind-driven waves, and boats blown loose from their moorings smashed docks and piers from the Inlet as far south as The Moorings Yacht and Country Club, causing millions of dollars in damage – little of which is eligible for FEMA reimbursement.

Dozens of docks in such communities as John’s Island, Seagrove and The Moorings were damaged or destroyed, and many won’t be repaired or replaced for months to come.

“In Vero, most of the damage was on the west shore of the island,” said dock builder Ron DeGrazia, owner of Vero Dock. “The docks at the Moorings – including the Anchor on the northwest side – were damaged, and John’s Island had a lot of damage. We did extensive work on Seagrove’s marina. The finger piers were damaged, mostly from boats broken loose in the storm.

“We have 40 jobs in the queue and five crews working full time. We’ll get through the list before six months is out.”

Dock builder Keith Hennessy, owner of Deckmasters, said he too is slammed with work. “We just built the Quail Valley Marina,” he said, “and we’re basically trying to play catch-up from that large project. The pressure is on because people want to use their docks during the season.”

Hennessy estimated about 50 percent of the docks in John’s Island were damaged, while nearly all docks near the Sebastian Inlet were damaged or destroyed. “John’s Island had more protection, but Sebastian Inlet was openly exposed to the storm surges.”

Robert Bruce, a retired engineer, sailor and boater who lives in Ambersand Beach on the northern part of the island, said “entire docks were lifted [out of the lagoon] and put on A1A ... all of our neighbors lost their docks.”

The docks damaged on the river in John’s Island generally were older, not maintained, or had bad construction, Hennessy said. 

Docks in John’s Island and elsewhere that were lower, “for convenience or scuba diving,” suffered the most damage, DeGrazia said.

Bruce, who lives in a riverfront home, described Hurricane Matthew’s movements, explaining why dock damage was so extensive in the lagoon. 

“First there was a [very high] king tide . . . then the front edge of the storm, as it headed north, turning clockwise, was pushing toward the shore and the prevailing winds were north to south, which forced the water out of the ocean and into the inlet, on top of the king tide. So you have an enormous amount of water in the lagoon.

“As the eye of the storm passed and headed farther north, the backside of the storm had prevailing winds that were running west to east. That’s when the damage occurred. The river was completely full and the wind created huge waves inside, between the mainland and barrier island, 3 or 4 feet high, maybe higher. The water level was a foot below the dock and then a big wave with a huge upward motion lifted the deck off the pilings, or maybe pulled the pilings out of the riverbed.”

David Cox, an ecologist who owns David Cox Consulting and helps people through the dock-permitting process, agreed with Bruce’s analysis, adding “The water gauge at the little bridge that leads to little Orchid Island showed an increase from 1.7 feet above sea level and broke when it reached 2.8 feet. But the slope (of the rapid water rise if put on a graph) indicated the water would reach way above 3 feet and maybe 4 feet.”

Indian River County building official Scott McAdam says building permits for docks have increased, but the permitting has not been commensurate with the number of docks damaged.

“Some people are thinking, ‘Do I need to replace my 90-foot dock, or should I put in a 40-foot dock?’” McAdam said. “They’re waiting and taking their time. This is the second time some of them have had to replace their dock since 2004 and some cost $100,000. You can’t get them insured, so it’s a total loss.”   

People are also waiting for the right contractor. “Older docks or docks with structural deficiencies – piers not deep enough and cross-bracing not strong enough – suffered the most damage,” McAdam said, so homeowners want to be sure their docks are rebuilt to a high standard.

Cox said clients who start out with an inexperienced contractor unfamiliar with the state permitting process often have to hire an experienced contractor to fix problems, so it’s better to wait for the right contractor. “The DEP patrols the lagoon. They can charge up to $20,000 a day for noncompliance. They get compliance real quick.”

FEMA declared Indian River County a disaster area, making private property owners eligible for storm damage reimbursement, but the federal agency does not provide funds to repair or replace privately-owned docks unless the dock provides the only transportation access, such as for a person who lives on a bayou and doesn’t have a car.

“Typically, privately-owned docks are not covered under the FEMA Individual Assistance disaster grants program, which provides assistance for people who have sustained serious damage to the living space in their primary residence,” FEMA External Affairs manager John Mills said.

According to McAdam, the average cost of docks permitted for replacement in the county since the storm is about $22,000.