Norwegian Cruise Line answers call for assistance to evacuate tourists from St. Thomas

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MIAMI -- It was on Sept. 8, as Hurricane Irma approached Florida, that Norwegian Cruise Line got word that the government of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands was seeking help to evacuate stranded tourists from the island. Irma had devastated the island two days earlier, before taking aim at the Florida peninsula.

Norwegian had ended two cruises early to send the Norwegian Sky and Norwegian Escape out to sea and away from the storm. Now executives had a decision to make. It didn't take long.

After checking to ensure that it was feasible for safety and other reasons, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio decided to deploy the 77,000-gross-ton Norwegian Sky on a humanitarian mission, making the ship unavailable to the corporation for its intended purpose, providing cruise vacations. But no matter.

"It was the right thing to do," Norwegian Cruise Line president and CEO Andy Stuart would say later. After talking to the rescued people, he said, "You can hear ... there were some extreme situations down there. The opportunity to reduce the burden on the destination and get some people out who were in some very tough circumstances was the right thing to do, rewarding for the company and important for the destination."

Throughout the cruise industry, companies rose to the occasion of Hurricane Irma by providing ships, crews and financial support for the Caribbean region that has been their playground and meal ticket for five decades.

Carnival Corp. pledged $10 million. Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. put four of its ships on rescue and resupply missions. Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line has chartered its only ship to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for three months.

The following report, based on interviews with Norwegian executives, shipboard personnel and evacuees from St. Thomas, sets out in detail how one of the cruise industry's hurricane relief efforts played out.

Conditions in St. Thomas following the storm were primitive. There were no lights, no electricity and no air conditioning, excepting what generators running sporadically could supply.

Many buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Security in some areas was becoming a concern.

One of the things St. Thomas authorities requested of the ship was ice. So when the Norwegian Sky left its storm anchorage south of Cancun, Mexico, the first thing hotel director Rohinton Mottahed did was power up the ice machine.

Day and night, the ice maker rumbled. Over the course of the 60-hour trip to St. Thomas, the Sky would crank out 160 bulk bags of ice to deliver upon arrival.

Another precious commodity was plywood for boarding up open windows. Norwegian Sky couldn't make any, but it had some in the carpentry shop.

"We keep plywood for various needs we might have," said Mark Kansley, senior vice president for hotel operations at Norwegian.

Mottahed began canvasing the ship for other useful items, such as bottled water, cleaning chemicals, bedsheets and towels. "We actually gave them a lot of provisions in terms of food, in terms of general provisions, basic essential items," he said.

Mottahed also mobilized the crew, which donated clothing, personal items, toiletries, even emptying out the gift shop of anything that was needed. In the end, of the 35 palettes of supplies that were off-loaded in St. Thomas, 15 palettes came from the crew.

Long before the ship arrived, stranded tourists knew it was coming to get them. One of the unlikely heroes of Hurricane Irma was a 23-year-old named Thomas Roesser, who was working his first job out of college.  

Roesser is Norwegian's social media specialist, meaning he is responsible for tending its Facebook page, its Twitter feed and other social media accounts. After the storm, when most other means of communication had been knocked out, social media would provide a lifeline in St. Thomas.

On the island, Terry Denton, who owns a water systems company in Phoenix and was on a 10-day vacation with family members, still had some Internet service.

"We heard a rumor that there was some cruise ship," Denton said. "So I got on Facebook and texted to four or five cruise lines to let them know we were stranded. Norwegian was the only cruise line that replied back to us. And they did it within two hours. And they let us know. They gave us a website to apply to get on the cruise ship."

It was Roesser on the other end. His message back: "You're not forgotten. Someone will come help you." Roesser said he sent dozens of responses like that to stranded passengers and their family members.

When no one in authority had any information, it was Norwegian's social media specialist who filled the void.

"We were in the dark," said Denton. "We had no hope until Norwegian."

When the Sky reached the dock in St. Thomas, it was 6 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12.

"Because there was a curfew, the tourists couldn't come out," Mottahed said. So the ship sent crew to begin rounding them up.

Charlene Woolley, an Atlanta IT specialist for a credit bureau, made the three-mile trip from her storm-ravaged hotel in an open air taxi.

"They came out in the courtyard and said, 'You have five minutes to get your bags together,'" Woolley recalled.

In the end, 923 tourists and USVI residents made it aboard, including 99 who had been evacuated from St. John by the Coast Guard. After six days of deprivation, they suddenly had water, light, and cool air again.

"We had dining options open for them. They were very taken care of," Mottahed said. When the Sky departed at 4:30 p.m., Royal Caribbean International's Majesty of the Seas was waiting to take its place at the pier.

The Sky took two days to sail back, arriving at PortMiami before dawn on Friday Sept. 15. Stuart was waiting for guests in the terminal when they disembarked.  

Some of them looked numb, like the soldiers on the fishing boat in the movie "Dunkirk." Others were clearly happy to be back, stopping to thank Stuart and to give him a heartfelt hug.

The rescue earned Norwegian some lifelong loyalists. "I will support it one-hundred-thousand percent," Woolley said.

Teresa Sumner Farris, a customer service worker at BancorpSouth, in Tupelo, Miss., said her son and his bride had been married in St. Thomas the week before Irma and were evacuated on the Sky.

"Who knows how long they would have been there if you had not come to their rescue?" she wrote on Norwegian's Travel Blog.

Asked to put a dollar value on the rescue mission, Stuart declined. "I don't think you can," he said. "Ultimately it's just the right thing to do."

But the St. Thomas rescue will certainly resonate in Norwegian history.

"I've had comments from people on the team, and Frank [Del Rio]'s had comments," Stuart said.

"It's the proudest day in their Norwegian careers."

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