The popular seaplane base and marina at Tavares, Florida, known as “America’s Seaplane City,” was heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma as it swept through the central part of the state Sept. 10-11, 2017.
Salvage operations are underway, but it will months before the area returns to normal.
“We prepared for the storm, but it came right at us and when the curfew was lifted we returned to find extensive damage to the docks and fuel system,” said Matt Elia, Aviation Manager for the city of Tavares, which is northwest of Orlando. “It appeared to be a very targeted storm, since the seaplane base and marina were destroyed, but the nearby aviation-themed playground received only minor damage and our waterfront store called The Prop Shop was undamaged.”
Although they were without power for several days after the storm, the three-story waterfront Key West Resort hotel at Tavares and numerous nearby restaurants and bars escaped largely unscathed.
Since the fuel delivery system for the seaplane base and marina was damaged and boats sank at their moorings, Elia’s first priority was to protect the environment. He was relieved to find that no fuel had leaked into Lake Dora, one of the numerous interconnected bodies of water in Lake County, where Tavares is located.
“We’ve met with FEMA and the insurance company and a contractor began salvage operations on Sept. 20,” said Elia. “Salvage operations are expected to be completed within 30 days. The sunken boats and many of the destroyed docks have already been removed and we’re making plans to design and build a new and improved facility.”
“The storm has given us a chance to incorporate lessons learned since 2010, when the facility was originally built, and we plan to improve the coordination between boats and airplanes,” he noted.
Elia’s first priority is to restore fuel service and some limited temporary docking facilities, since he estimates that 20,000 seaplane operations have occurred at Tavares since it was first marketed as “America’s Seaplane City.”
The first seaplane to land after the storm arrived on Sept. 16.
“It was great to hear that first seaplane overhead and to see it land on our lake,” said Elia, who is a pilot and flight instructor.
He added a temporary seaplane dock is now available near an over-water pavilion used for weddings and other events.
Jones Brothers Air & Seaplane Adventures, a local aerial sightseeing business, has also resumed limited operations at Tavares after flying its fleet of five seaplanes to safety as the hurricane approached. The business operates two Cessna 206s, a Cessna 185, a Cub, and a Searey.
Jones Brothers operations were shut down for two to three weeks because all the seaplane docks were destroyed and the beach was loaded with debris.
Since some of Jones’ planes are on “straight floats,” which limits them to landing only on water, owner Rob Galloway arranged with Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base at the Winter Haven Airport to have those planes trailered to a hangar on the field. He found refuge for his other planes in hangars at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Lakeland, Florida.
Although his seaplanes are back in service, Galloway said his ride operation is in “severe limp mode” at present. Although his amphibians can refuel at the Leesburg Airport four miles away, he must carry containers of aviation fuel to the planes on straight floats and refuel them on the water.
“We are getting a temporary dock installed in front of our office at the Prop Shop,” added Galloway. “Also, we’ve got some ideas regarding how the seaplane base can be improved as it’s rebuilt and we look forward to being a big part of it.”
The annual Monster Splash Halloween Seaplane Fly-in usually held at Tavares in October has been postponed until Saturday, Nov. 18.
Another large 2018 event scheduled for the Tavares waterfront next spring is the annual Sunnyland Antique and Classic Boat Show, which typically attracts more than 250 wooden boats every year in March. It is the largest boat show of its type in the U.S.