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Cruise ship carries thousands of hurricane evacuees to Fort Lauderdale

Chabeli Herrera, Miami Herald on

Published in Weather News

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Sandra Rivera was down to her last cans of tuna and corned beef, her final precious bottle of water, when a man knocked at the door of her aunt's house in Rincon, Puerto Rico.

"A guy came, Harry, and said, 'Sandra, (your daughter) Rebecca has arranged for you to get on a Royal Caribbean cruise but you have to leave now.' I said, 'Honey, say no more.' I took that yellow banana thing (a suitcase) and I piled everything in there and said, 'We are out of here.'"

Rivera flew to Puerto Rico from San Diego to try to evacuate her 94-year-old father, Woodrow Diaz, from a hospital in Rincon, about 2 1/2 hours from San Juan when conditions are good.

On this particular night in the middle of last week, Rivera was driven to San Juan through the night -- past curfew -- from one end of the hurricane-ravaged island to the other. In Boca Raton, her daughter Rebecca waited anxiously to see if the last-ditch plan to arrange a ride for her mother and grandfather via a car transport service would prove fruitful.

"I felt insane," she said. "It was just such a trial waiting and you don't know if the car service makes it out when they leave San Juan, cellphone service drops out ... It's like a voyage to the moon."

After a 3 1/2-hour drive over ravaged roads, Sandra Rivera made it to San Juan in time to board Royal Caribbean International's Adventure of the Seas. The cruise ship had turned rescue vessel and would go on to evacuate 3,800 stranded tourists, island residents and friends and family of Royal Caribbean employees in Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Croix.

Early Tuesday morning, the ship's hull finally appeared on the horizon near Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades. Tied to the balcony on Adventure's bow were three flags: Puerto Rico's, the U.S. Virgin Islands' and the American flag.

At the port, hundreds of desperate family members carried their own flags, signs, and chanted "Puerto Rico se levanta" -- Puerto Rico rises -- as evacuees started trickling out of the ship at about 9:30 a.m. Luis Fonsi's anthem to the Island of Enchantment, "Despacito," played in the background.

When Rivera and Diaz went though the doors of Terminal 18 at about 10:20 a.m, Rebecca Rivera broke into a run, then hugged her mother. The crowd seemed to cheer them on, chanting "Puerto Rico!"

Rebecca Rivera said that her anxiety ebbed once she knew they were on the ship, where the two were treated to hot meals, shows and even trivia.

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