Revitalizing Zeke’s Landing After Hurricane Sally

Although the Florida coast is often impacted by several storms during the annual Atlantic hurricane season, plenty of other coastal areas also suffer damage and loss as violent storms make landfall throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

On September 16th, 2020, Hurricane Sally came ashore in Southern Alabama, hitting Gulf Coast vacation destination, Orange Beach, with sustained winds of more than 105 miles per hour and a 6-foot storm surge.

While many boats were damaged or destroyed, most of the charter boats were moved inland where they were better protected.

Sally’s Category 2 rating would have led to plenty of damage under any circumstances, but moving at less than 5 mph, Sally crawled across the area causing far worse destruction than expected.

Although Sally was projected to make landfall 100 miles to the west, the storm scored a direct hit on Orange Beach’s residential areas and local businesses, including popular marina and restaurant Zeke’s Landing.

The Power of Hurricane Sally
Zeke’s dockmaster, Tyler Creel, was working as marina security when the hurricane hit. As a long-time Gulf Coast resident, Creel had experienced other named storms but saw first-hand what made Sally different.

The ship’s store, restaurant, and event center were heavily damaged.

“It just sat here and hovered over us all day,” said Creel. “All of our docks were gone. It took out our dock store. The boats that were left on the docks were found across the bayou in people’s yards.”

Home to the Gulf’s largest charter fishing fleet, Zeke’s Landing has 57 wet slips dedicated to charter vessels and party boats. Zeke’s Landing also provides dry storage for another 200 smaller boats.

Zeke’s owner, Lynne Swafford, had been coming to Orange Beach for years before purchasing the marina and restaurant in 2018 – just two and a half years before Sally made landfall. The area’s beauty and relaxed culture were a big draw, but she knew that hurricanes were also part of life on the Gulf.

When Sally became a threat, the Zeke’s Landing crew did what they could to prepare but, as with any storm, the damage is impossible to predict.
“The water started coming up three or four days before the storm hit,” said Swafford. “So, we emptied our dock store and took everything upstairs into the Event Center above the restaurant. Two days after the storm, the Event Center roof collapsed, so all the inventory was gone.”

The Rebuilding Process
While the damage to Zeke’s Landing and other area marinas was extensive, the rebuilding process was also hampered by another, equally unexpected source. When Sally hit, much of the United States was still wrestling with the effects of Covid-19. “It was a devastating experience,” said Swafford, “and then Covid compounded the issues.”

The new marina includes larger pilings to give boats stronger mooring points.

Although a few of the vessels suffered damage during Sally’s onslaught, most of the charter boats were moved inland where they were better protected. Since the area’s fishing season draws a large number of Orange Beach vacationers, putting the charter fleet back in operation was a high priority for Swafford.

With many of the local marinas competing for the same materials and labor, which were already in short supply due to Covid, rebuilding the docks alone was a hurdle. “We wanted our guys to be able to get back to their livelihood as quick as possible,” said Swafford, “so we brought in two 300-foot floating docks and put them on the east and west property line.”

With the temporary docks installed on the marina’s outer boundaries, the charter vessels had a home while construction on the stationary docks continued in the center.

“We utilized every resource that we had at hand to get the docks rebuilt as quickly as possible,” said Swafford. “The storm hit on September 16, 2020, and on June 1, 2021, our docks were operational.”

Since the dock store, restaurant, and event center also suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Sally, Swafford saw the reconstruction process as an opportunity to remodel some of the spaces.

“As part of our decor in the restaurant, we used items from Hurricane Sally,” she said. “We have a full wall that’s covered with a photo that was taken the night before Hurricane Sally hit. It’s done in black and white and it’s very dramatic.”

The boat storage facility was completely rebuilt following the storm.

Another wall is covered from floor to ceiling with fishing rods that were recovered from the bay after the storm. Anglers still contribute their outdated or damaged gear to the unique display.

During the rebuild process, Swafford also used the opportunity to better protect critical infrastructure from future storms. Larger pilings were installed to give boats stronger mooring points but are not structural components of the docks. If a boat pulls a piling loose, the dock is less likely to be damaged.
However, Swafford knows that storms are something you learn to live with on the Gulf. “Living through one of the hurricanes helps you develop better procedures for the future,” she said. “But there’s only so much you can do to prepare.”