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.

"They treated us like we paid $10,000 for the trip," Sandra Rivera said.

Following the devastation Hurricane Maria wreaked in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Royal Caribbean International canceled Adventure of the Seas' Sept. 23 voyage and instead sent the ship on a three-stop humanitarian tour. Last Thursday, Adventure sailed from San Juan with 1,791 evacuees to pick 864 more in St. Croix and 681 people in St. Thomas before heading back to Fort Lauderdale.

The voyage, free of charge to evacuees, was part of an unprecedented effort cruise lines have made this hurricane season to bring relief to the islands they typically visit year round.

"We try to help as many people as we possibly could and I think, in nearly all circumstances, pretty much everybody that showed up we took on board and we helped them," said Michael Bayley, president and CEO of Royal Caribbean International.

And human guests weren't the only cruise guests on Adventure. Also on board: 120 cats and dogs, three birds, a guinea pig and a hamster.

"It was like Noah's Ark of people all coming together," Bayley said from the port Tuesday.

The Miami-based cruise line also delivered about 900,000 cases of food, water, medical supplies and other relief supplies. Bayley said that, long term, Royal Caribbean plans to offer volunteer opportunities for free to employees or guests who want to help in cleanup efforts on the islands hit by Irma or Maria.

The rescue mission closely resembled another the cruise line had taken after the passage of Hurricane Irma in the eastern Caribbean. In early September, the line dispatched two cruise ships, Adventure and Majesty of the Seas, to pick up evacuees in St. Thomas and St. Maarten. In all, 1,700 people were evacuated from those two islands and thousands of supplies delivered, including more than 25 pallets of medical supplies, 29,571 gallons of water, 13,050 pounds of animal supplies, 9,355 gallons of milk, 7,000 pounds of ice, 110,500 garbage bags, 4,200 rolls of toilet paper, 450 power generators and 30,504 batteries.

While a majority of passengers aboard Adventure of the Seas have connections in South Florida, Royal Caribbean said, the cruise line is working with the United Way of Broward and Miami-Dade counties to gather necessary resources for evacuees while they're in Florida. Kathleen Cannon, president and CEO of the United Way of Broward County, said the organization has set up a relief fair to aid evacuees who need housing, disaster relief, behavioral health and other social services.

Adventure of the Seas will go back to San Juan for its next scheduled sailing from Puerto Rico on Saturday loaded with 150 pallets of relief supplies.

But for those who were able to leave the island, the relief of an escape is mingled with guilt.

Marta Collazo, who reunited with daughter Wanda Collazo at the port Tuesday morning, left behind two sons, grandchildren and other family in San Juan.

"I have two sons still there ... and they are having a hard time. It looks like an atomic bomb fell there -- it's destroyed," Marta Collazo said. "But when I saw (my daughter) it was like my heart was going to come out of my chest."

Wanda Collazo spent a week frantically trying to reach her family following the passage of Maria, even sending messages to her brothers about a possible cruise ship evacuation for their 78-year-old mother. By a stroke of luck, a WhatsApp message finally went through and the three siblings arranged Marta Collazo's evacuation on Adventure of the Seas.

Marta Collazo said she'll stay in South Florida a short time until Puerto Rico has power and water again, then she'll go home. Until then, she looks forward to reuniting with family -- and a nice Puerto Rican "pernil," or pork shoulder.

"I ate too much sausage (on the ship)," she said -- her only complaint.

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