These Florida residents have runaway barges in their yards after Hurricane Sally: ‘What do we do?’

Jake Newby
| Pensacola News Journal

PENSACOLA, Fla. – Many people impacted by Hurricane Sally are still assessing wind and water damage left in the wake of the Category 2 storm.

But only a select few residents of Pensacola, Florida, also have the misfortune of dealing with massive runaway barges that washed ashore and settled in their yards. Homeowners said Sunday that at least four barges remain lodged in the yards of homes located off the shore of Pensacola Bay.

Joanne Nisewonger did not evacuate her home Tuesday night when the storm rolled in. Instead, Nisewonger and her husband experienced in real-time the sights and sounds of a barge blasting through their seawall and bouncing against their and their neighbor’s fencing like a pinball.  

“I didn’t know how big it was, I couldn’t fathom how big a barge is,” Nisewonger told the Pensacola News Journal of the USA TODAY Network on Sunday. “You can’t just see a picture and understand, you have to come see this thing.”

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‘A barge is coming, a barge is coming’

Property owners with houses along the shore are required to have seawalls made of large rocks built before their homes are constructed as a means of protection from the water. Some neighbors in the area said their seawalls did their jobs, but others found that Sally was far too forceful to be stopped. 

“The basement was flooded and our cars were flooded and everything, and then I look through the window and see this light coming towards me,” Nisewonger said, referring to a light attached to the top of the barge now entrenched in her backyard. “I’m like, ‘A is barge is coming, a barge is coming. Oh my gosh, what do we do?'” 

The couple were at the barge’s mercy as they huddled up in the center of their home in the early morning hours Wednesday. 

“We stayed there for hours,” Nisewonger said Sunday morning, as she pointed to the gigantic, displaced vessel still sitting on her back lawn. “It was very loud. This iron piece at the very top, that big, long iron piece was shaking and bumping. It was super loud.”

The barge completely flattened Nisewonger’s metal fence. She also thinks it may have  blasted her deck steps 30 to 40 yards back behind her house, unless the storm surge alone was responsible. 

Not even a mile away from Nisewonger, fellow Pensacola resident Rhoda Simkins on Bayshore Lane was left in a similar predicament. 

Simkins, her husband and her son evacuated ahead of Sally on Tuesday. The family returned Wednesday afternoon to find the grass in their seawall penetrated, 30 yards worth of grass torn away, their dock demolished and a never-before-seen sight for Simkins — the pilings that support the dock destroyed. 

“In a typical storm like this, you would lose the dock but you’d still have the pilings, and it’s a lot cheaper to rebuild when the pilings are in place,” Simkins said Sunday. “And you’d still have your yard and everything. But the barge wiped it all out.” 

If it weren’t for the large slabs of concrete that the very front of her lawn — just feet from her back porch — was built on, Simkins is afraid the barge may have damaged her house. 

For that reason, gratitude has been the unexpectedly prevailing emotion for Simkins.

“If it had just been dirt, it probably would have hit the house,” she said. “Because look how close it got anyway.” 

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Who owns the loose barges?

Multiple barges broke loose during the peak of Sally’s strength, scattering throughout the area and damaging a bridge.

In a statement released Thursday, Skanska USA, the construction company that owns the still unspecified number of runaway barges, said it regrets the incident, but noted it made “all appropriate preparations” based on the best information available before the storm.

Skanska USA responded to the Pensacola News Journal’s request for comment Sunday by saying the company hopes to provide an update on the situation Monday. 

Homeowners also haven’t heard from the company since the incident unfolded. 

“I kind of expected (Skanska) to at least come and knock on the door and say, ‘Are y’all OK?'” Nisewonger said. “Maybe that’s a little too southern of me.” 

Those with barges planted in their yards indefinitely have been particularly overwhelmed with cleanup efforts this week, not to mention the eyesores. 

Nisewonger said that she and her husband haven’t considered pursuing a lawsuit yet, but they are concerned about drowning in the looming expenses brought on by Sally and the giant vessel. 

“If the house is not livable — which there’s a lot of water damage and mold and all that — if it’s not livable, we don’t enough insurance to rebuild it,” she said. “Now I have a barge sitting in my backyard with all this yucky water in it, and, I mean, we bought this house for the beautiful view. Now we’re asking, ‘How long is it going to take to get this thing out?’ Because now it’s affecting my everyday life.”

Simkins said a potential lawsuit is definitely on the table for the damage the barge did to her backyard. She said her husband has had conversations with the Florida Department of Transportation, which she said has acted as a third party strictly to assess barge locations, according to Simkins. 

“Here’s the thing, we wouldn’t have enough money to do this ourselves,” she said Sunday, looking out onto the wreckage in her backyard. “We feel like if the barge hadn’t been out there and broken loose, we wouldn’t have this sort of damage.” 

Follow reporter Jake Newby on Twitter: @JakeNewby07

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