Royal Caribbean's Dorian aid effort: Harder than it looks

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Workers unloading a tug with hurricane relief supplies in Freeport, Grand Bahama.
Workers unloading a tug with hurricane relief supplies in Freeport, Grand Bahama. Photo Credit: Tom Stieghorst

Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst is in the Bahamas covering Royal Caribbean's mission to deliver food to Bahamians after Hurricane Dorian hit.

FREEPORT, Bahamas -- I was on the first cruise ship to visit Grand Bahama in the aftermath of Dorian, part of an initiative by Royal Caribbean to immediately feed tens of thousands of Bahamians left bereft by the hurricane, but I must admit I was perversely unprepared for what I saw as I sailed into Freeport harbor on a tender from the Empress of the Seas.

The biggest surprise was how little evidence of damage I saw on the island's south side. After Dorian stalled over Grand Bahama as a Category 5 hurricane, the first images from the air showed complete destruction. But it turns out that Grand Bahama's experience with Dorian was a tale of two storms: a brutal battering and epic storm surge on the north coast, and far less damage on the south side where the port sits.

Sure, there was evidence of a hurricane. But roofs were relatively intact, trees not stripped of their leaves and fronds, wreckage and marine detritus absent from the shoreline. I had braced for worse.

As for Royal Caribbean's mission to feed Bahamians, I had little grasp of the magnitude of the process. On the Empress, the goal was to deliver 10,000 boxed meals. Thereafter, Royal will up the ante to 20,000 meals a day.

Think about that for a second. That's the passenger capacity of all four of Royal Caribbean International's Oasis-class ships.

"One thing we know how to do better than anyone," said Royal Caribbean chairman Richard Fain in an interview before I left, "is to prepare food for lots and lots of people."

When I walked into the second floor of the two-story Starlite Dining Room on the Empress, I was stunned. Every table, every surface, was covered with cardboard clamshells being packed for delivery. Some long tables were stacked four or five layers tall.

"It doesn't matter you guys," a supervisor belted out. "You just have to balance it a bit."

Royal Caribbean delivers hurricane relief

There were cartons and cartons of apples being parceled out, along with chips, a granola bar and tableware. The last step would be adding the entree, which was being prepared in the ship's galley.

There I found enormous vats of yellow rice, stainless steel tubs of chicken marinating for roasting, and tray towers of bread.  In one room a galley worker was busy running turkey necks through a band saw to make small chunks. 

In a sandwich prep room there were mini-mountains of rolls and small walls of cheese slices being turned into finished goods by a dozen people. 

"At first I was shocked by the massive volume," said Leonard Francis, a cook from Grenada who is no stranger to hurricanes. "But then I thought that I can help people by doing such a small thing." 

Melroy Antao, the food and beverage director on the Empress, told me at least 140 crew were employed on the project. We spoke near midnight, about two hours after the work had begun. "The goal is to finish by 9:30 a.m. tomorrow," he said.

In the morning, I was up at first light to join the Royal Caribbean "Go Team" that had been activated to get the food logistics onshore worked out and provide whatever help they could to the Bahamians.

The afterwinds of Dorian were still blowing, and the tender was bobbing like a cork as we set off for the harbor. A few port and relief agency workers were there to greet us, but not many, and it took a while to establish the ground rules. 

Royal Caribbean took responsibility for supplying the food and getting it to the pier, but the Bahamians were then to truck it and distribute to those in need.

The first tender arrived within an hour with 162 cases of bottled water. They were offloaded with a human chain from tender to truck. The inefficiency of this was obvious. But the port was officially closed to large ships, the airport likewise shut down. If Bahamians were to be fed, this was how it would get done.

One improvement was made early on before the first food was shipped: a port tug would be used instead of a tender, greatly easing the loading/unloading and increasing the delivery capacity.

By noon we had a tug with hundreds of boxes waiting to hit the human chain. A couple of soldiers from the Bahamas Defense Force had shown up to pitch in and escort the truck on its mission. 

In addition to the boxed lunches, there were cartons of dry cereals, containers of canned beans and flats of juice boxes to unload. 

Except for a brief drive-by glimpse from a van that afternoon, we never saw the food delivered to the needy. That was the Bahamians' job. Instead, we reconnoitered a couple of locations that Royal Caribbean officials thought they could use to improve the operation.

After all, the Symphony of the Seas and Celebrity Equinox were due in tomorrow, and the relief effort was about to double in size overnight.

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