Pensacola oyster farmer says Skanska barge smashed through farm, ruined 800,000 oysters
A Pensacola oyster farmer claims a rogue Skanska barge plowed through his farm, dragging almost 800,000 oysters to shore and causing him an estimated $500,000 in losses.
During Hurricane Sally, 22 barges owned by the construction company Skanska USA came unmoored and scattered across Pensacola and Escambia bays. The vessels reportedly crashed into bridges, washed up in backyards and in the case of Travis Gill, ran roughshod over his life's investment.
Gill, the owner of the DeLuna Oyster Co., launched his one-man business in 2017. He said he made a small investment at first to see if the farm was viable, and after building up a good reputation and solid clientele base decided to go "all-in and get a bunch of oysters." Until recently, his plot in the waters just of Pensacola's southeastern shore boasted about 65 floating oyster cages.
He spent the week leading up to Hurricane Sally getting prepped for the storm: anchoring the cages with pipe and safety lines and ensuring all his boats and equipment were properly secured. The precautions should have enough to get his oyster farm through the hurricane largely unscathed, he said.
Except there's not much you can do to protect against a runaway barge.
"The barge came through and pulled everything out of the ground in one big wad," Gill said Wednesday.
From a little work boat, Gill rode the choppy waters of the bay Wednesday pointing out the places where his oysters used to be. While a few of them bobbed up and down on the waves, most were piled up on the shoreline roughly a few hundred yards from a beached barge.
"(The morning after the storm) I went out to the farm to look and noticed all my gear was gone," Gill said. "There were only four damaged cages left. I was just trying to figure out what happened to them, and I found them on shore near barges all smashed up and destroyed."
Gill was able to salvage a few of the cages and get them back out into the bay, but he said the vast majority of his oysters and equipment were a lost cause. He said he emailed Skanska at an address provided for people who were affected by the barges, but has yet to receive a reply.
Jeff Gill, Travis' father and an attorney who plans to represent DeLuna Oyster Co., said his son had been responsible and done everything he was supposed to do to protect his property and other's.
"We spent the whole week accounting for all of our stuff, only to lose it all because somebody else didn't prepare," the elder Gill said.
Skanska representatives were not immediately available to comment on Gill's assertions Wednesday evening.
However, in a previous statement Skanska said that it made "all appropriate preparations" for the storm based on forecast that showed the hurricane making landfall in a northwestern section of the Gulf near Louisiana or Mississippi. Skanska said by the time the storm turned toward Pensacola, it was "neither safe nor feasible" to attempt removing the barges.
Skanska officials have confirmed 12 of the 22 loose barges went aground on private property, and, like Gill, many families are lawyering up.
Additionally, the construction company is in communication with state officials to discuss how they will address substantial damage that two loose barges caused to the new, $400 million Pensacola Bay Bridge. The damage is expected to shut down the bridge for months, adding 30-odd miles in sometimes standstill traffic to what used to be a three-mile commute between Pensacola and Gulf Breeze.
Someday, when the litigation and negotiation and meditation is all said and done, the barge fiasco will almost certainly affect Skanska's bottom line.
But right now, a local farmer said it's literally affecting his ability to put food on the table.
"We're going to try to recover," Gill said of the oyster farm. "It takes 12 to 15 months for an oyster to grow to market size, so it'll be 12 to 15 months before I have more to sell again. ... (In the meantime) we'll just have to find some other sources of income. We're going have to find something to make some money in the downtime."
Kevin Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8527.