A group of young sailors stands helplessly on a deck as two skippers in yellow tow a shredded 200-foot-long dock away from the shore. Crushed behind it is a mangled wreck of nine sailboats, a couple of powerboats, and a 40-foot pontoon. As the dock drifts away, their worst fear is confirmed: Nothing is salvageable.
This past weekend, Irma, a devastating Category 4 hurricane, ripped through South Florida, where it flooded coastal businesses, tore apart houses, and forced hundreds of thousands of people into emergency shelters. As of Thursday morning, the death toll is 69 and counting. As the state rushes to provide disaster relief, one organization is finding recovery particularly difficult — Shake-a-Leg Miami, a community boating center at Monty's Marina in Coconut Grove that takes children and adults with special needs out on the water.
"The 40-foot pontoon was our workhorse. It let us take up to 40 people on the water at a time," says Matthew Kertesz, a 23-year-old from Coconut Grove who has been a volunteer at Shake-a-Leg since his junior year of high school. "Now it's up against the rocks and mangroves. Our boats are totaled."
Shake-a-Leg Miami was created in 1990 after its founder, Harry Horgan, then a 22-year-old from Newport, Rhode Island, fell off the back of a pickup truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. Determined not to let his paraplegia restrict him, Horgan formed Shake-a-Leg Miami, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering people with disabilities through the beauty and healing magic of the open water.
"Since the majority of people have never experienced what it's like to be on a boat, water [becomes] an equalizer," says Horgan, now 59 years old. "That's what Shake-a-Leg is — it's a place where people with disabilities feel whole."
On a daily basis, Shake-a-Leg receives 500 to 600 children, half of whom have disabilities, including cerebral palsy, autism, paraplegia, and attention deficit disorder. Along with the center's full-time staff of certified physical therapists, hundreds of students from Miami-Dade County's public high schools volunteer at Shake-a-Leg every year to complete their community service requirements. But even once they're done, many — like Kertesz — are inspired to continue volunteering.
"It's an incredibly inclusive atmosphere," says Kertesz, who has often taken children sailing, fishing, and kayaking on Shake-a-Leg's boats. "You've got kids without disabilities in the same camp as kids with disabilities, so everyone is learning. That vibe and magic is honestly priceless."
Through the years, Paralympic sailors have even come to Shake-a-Leg to dock their boats during regatta season. "It's an amazing sight to see these people who not only have different types of disabilities, but are also world-class athletes," Kertesz says.
Because of the damage caused by the storm, activities at Shake-a-Leg have been put on hold until further notice. As for the reconstruction of the center, Kertesz anticipates that boat salvage will be an immense challenge.
In the week before Hurricane Irma tore through Miami, the volunteers transferred Shake-a-Leg's smaller sailboats and paddlecraft to an old airplane hangar formerly owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The team tied the larger vessels to a long floating dock, which, unlike a fixed dock, was designed to rise with tidal surge. Thinking these preparations were enough, most volunteers went home, though two stayed in the center's building, a facility that was 17 feet above sea level.
Unfortunately, when the storm hit, things didn't go according to plan. At one point, a 100-foot yacht that belonged to a different owner broke loose. As it drifted with the violent waves, the large vessel rammed into Shake-a-Leg's dock, pushing its full fleet of boats into the shore, where they were quickly crushed.
Returning after the storm, Shake-a-Leg's crew rushed to assess the damage. Each vessel was valued around $25,000, so Horgan estimates the cost to fix or replace the boats alone will amount to more than $300,000. He adds that this is likely an underestimate because many vessels had been retrofitted to be wheelchair-accessible and to cater to other disabilities — investments that will add to the final cost of repairs.
Horgan laments that the boats weren't insured at a replacement value. Because most of Shake-a-Leg's funding comes from private donors and local foundations such as the Children's Trust and the Peacock Foundation, the organization doesn't have one reliable source of income.
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After seeing the devastation, four of Shake-a-Leg's volunteers, including Kertesz, banded together last Wednesday to create a GoFundMe campaign. The goal is to raise $50,000 for Shake-a-Leg. According to Kertesz, the volunteers hope residents of Coconut Grove and other Miami neighborhoods will feel motivated enough to either donate money or help with the cleanup as a sign of appreciation for the center's three decades of service. "The generosity here has been endless, but now it’s our turn — the community's turn — to give back and make sure Shake-a-Leg can continue with its mission," he says.
Meanwhile, Horgan says he's confident his community will rise to the challenge and help. Many of his weekend volunteers have already been working weekdays to assist with the cleanup. A couple of volunteers carried rakes and brooms to clear trash and debris that the storm blew onto the grounds.
Seeing their enthusiasm, Horgan says he thinks they'll be able to get at least part of the center functioning in time for Monday, when school starts. But it'll take everything they've got, he says. "We're in the business of mending broken limbs and broken spirits and of helping people do more. Now it's time to put that into our storm recovery."