A Perfect Storm: What we learned from this winter’s severe weather, and how to prepare for next season

Dan Field
Last winter proved to be a rough one for dock and boat owners on Lake of the Ozarks when the Lake froze over. After the thaw, the Lake level dropped to near-record lows and many docks sat on dry land.

Mother Nature can be a fickle presence and the Lake-wide damage she caused from the Lake freezing over this winter will take months to repair. Many dock and boat owners had to figure out quickly what to do, who to hire, and if insurance would pay for damages. 

In late March, flood gates at Bagnell Dam were opened for several days to offset upstream rainfall and to prevent flooding of the Lake of the Ozarks from spring rains.

Two months before, with temperatures well below freezing, turbines at Bagnell Dam worked overtime to produce enough electricity to meet the demand on the electrical grid caused by the weeks-long cold spell. Consequently, the Lake level fell to near record lows to slightly above 652 feet above sea level. Normal for February is 654, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission guide curve.

The lower-than-normal Lake levels came quickly as Ameren raced to meet the electric demand caused by the below zero temperatures across the Midwest. That phenomenon coupled with ice as the Lake froze shoreline-to-shoreline wreaked havoc. The damage was caused by the heavy ice followed closely by snow amounting to 10 inches or more that also caused dock roofs to collapse from the weight, and push the docks farther into the frozen Lake. It was a mess and in some terms a “perfect storm” of events.

As docks and boat lifts dropped along with Lake levels cables broke, welds broke, bolts broke. Docks actually bent at the pressure points, partly lying on the Lake bottom and the rest encased by thick ice at the whim of the moving water underneath. Encapsulated foam flotation broke lose as well.

“There’s a lot of damage around,” Summerset Boat Lift owner Dave Brooks said in late March. “What went on and continues to go on is unbelievable.”

As water levels rose in the spring, it put added stress on the already damaged docks and boat lifts. 

“We’re eight weeks behind because of the damage to boat lifts and docks and we’re not caught up yet,” he said, noting his crews are working six days a week to meet the demand caused by winter damage and the influx of new homeowners. 

Add to that the unavailability of parts due to the COVID pandemic, and he and other boat lift and dock dealers were scrambling.

There are several things boaters and homeowners need to know now to lessen damage and ways to prepare for another event in the future. 

Be Aware & Courteous this Boating Season 

The Missouri State Highway Patrol Marine Division patrols the Lake year-round.

Erring on the side of caution, here’s what they have to say:

“To ensure everyone's safety, the MSHP stresses the importance of being aware and courteous while boating. Last winter's ice and heavy snow combinations have caused damage to some boat docks. Dock owners should wear life jackets when assessing and repairing damaged docks. Using the buddy system means someone is there to assist you if you end up in the water.”

Compounding the problem as boating ramps up for the season is the potential damage that can be caused by inconsiderate boaters.

“Any boats operating in areas where dock damage has occurred are encouraged to operate at no wake idle speed. This prevents further damage and increases safety for those working on the docks,” the MSHP urges.

As docks pulled away from their land-based moorings, additional stress was placed on the electrical systems.

“Remember that damaged electric wires around docks should be treated as if they are live. Ameren guidelines recommend monthly ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) testing of electric equipment and bonding wires. This includes both the dock and the power supply to the dock being inspected regularly by a qualified electrician,” the MSHP suggests.

As Lake residents and property owners focus on cleanup, repair and replacement, Ameren warns those involved in the cleanup that there are many hazards in and around damaged docks. To avoid electric shock, care should be taken to ensure that all structures are de-energized prior to accessing and working on them. Special care should also be taken to retrieve debris from docks and damaged boats and prevent the debris from getting into the Lake. In addition, all debris and other materials removed from damaged docks must be taken to a properly licensed waste or recycling facility for disposal.

There are any number of licensed and certified electricians in the Lake area that can inspect your dock. The various fire districts that serve the Lake can also conduct inspections.

Are You Covered? 

The amount of dock damage at the Lake will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many dock owners discovered that their homeowner’s insurance does not cover damage caused by ice or snow.

One local agent says there may be an exclusion in most policies that dock owners are not aware of that excludes coverage for damage to docks and lifts caused by ice. The freezing, thawing or pressure of water or ice may not be covered in a standard homeowner’s policy. 

According to the American Family Insurance website, there are some common exclusions to dock insurance coverage that limit what types of damage are covered by your policy. These can include:  

• Freeze-related damage such as ice damaging the structure of the dock.

• Collapse of the dock, unless that collapse is caused by a building falling onto it.  

• Flood-related damage, including total loss of the dock to a flood.  

• High winds that cause severe wave action resulting in damage.

So, dock owners, it’s important to call your agent and ask for specific exclusions in your policy. Also, there may be a special rider that can be added to your policy for coverage — at a price, of course.