In the wake of the utter devastation caused by Dorian, the cruise line industry morphed into a cavalry Thursday with three ships leading the charge from South Florida ports.
Dr. John Fernandez supervised the evacuation of Sebastian River Medical Center in Indian River County as Hurricane Dorian eyed Florida one week ago.
Now the emergency room physician stood in line Thursday at the Port of Palm Beach, ready to board a cruise ship to the Bahamas which — unlike Florida — took a direct hit from the Category 5 storm.
Fernandez was just one of a number of volunteer physicians who boarded the Grand Celebration cruise ship set to sail to Freeport, Grand Bahama. The Palm Beach County Medical Society had put out an email to physicians looking for help.
"We donate money, we've donated goods, but this is something that we can do ourselves to help that not everyone can do," Palm Beach-based trauma surgeon Arthur Vercillo said.
In the wake of the utter devastation caused by Dorian, the cruise line industry morphed into a cavalry Thursday with three ships leading the charge from South Florida ports despite concerns from Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio that uncoordinated efforts could hamper a speedy recovery.
The Riviera Beach-based ship aimed to deliver food and supplies to victims —and something else. The Grand Celebration also stood ready to bring back to the state any stranded Bahamian residents, officials with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said.
Shortly after the Grand Celebration returned Thursday morning with some 300 passengers to its home base, the cruise line announced the vessel would depart again that night for Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.
Oneil Khosa, the cruise line’s CEO, said he decided to forgo a commercial trip because “it is probably more appropriate to have a humanitarian cruise.”
In addition to supplies, the ship will also ferry key volunteers and first-responders, Khosa said. Resolve Marine Group, which specializes in salvage, will have a crew on board. Also coming along: A team from Alabama that specializes in oil pollution and another team to assess what is left of the electrical grid on Grand Bahama island.
“These are the kind of people Grand Bahama needs right now,” Khosa said.
The cruise line has received permission to dock by the Port of Freeport Harbour Co., Khosa said. The cruise ship, which can carry 1,900 people, will not turn away anybody with a passport or valid visa who wants to return with the ship to Florida this weekend, he said.
“They haven't seen anyone since the hurricane. We will be the first ones to walk down there and say, ‘Guys, it's going to be OK,’” Khosa said.
Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas also headed out Thursday morning to Freeport with 362 generators, 47,000 bottles of water, pet food, tarps and plywood.
“We can’t make every bad memory of Dorian go away. But we can start making things better—today,” said Richard Fain, Chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises.
Norwegian Cruise Line also sent over relief supplies on their ship Breakaway.
Back at the Port of Palm Beach, Freeport resident Ann Hield waited to board the Grand Celebration. She wasn't sure what to expect when she returned home.
Hield was in Florida visiting family and friends when the impending hurricane left her stranded here. A few of her children stayed home, she said, and she was able to talk to them long enough to be assured that her home was still intact.
"But I don't know about anywhere else," she said. "I'll just have to see when we get there."
The cruise ships were just one way Floridians aimed to help after Dorian’s 220 mph wind gusts leveled Grand Bahama, Great Abaco and the surrounding keys — tourists meccas all.
An early account estimated 45 percent of the homes were destroyed on those islands, affecting some 60,000 people.
The death toll rose to at least 30 on Thursday.
The U.S. Coast Guard continued its relief and rescue efforts. The agency USAID deployed a disaster response team. A crew from the Los Angeles Fire Department was already on the ground.
Humanitarian efforts across South Florida appeared widespread and robust, no doubt reflecting strong ties to the islands that sit fewer than 90 miles away.
Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties are home to the most Bahamians in the U.S. with about 13,400 residents of Bahamian descent, according to the latest census data.
Even with relief efforts gearing up, officials expressed a concern that an uncoordinated rush of goods to the islands could hinder current recovery efforts.
DeSantis and Rubio, both Republicans, said Thursday that it was important the aid to the Bahamas be coordinated lest the assistance turn into an impediment. Pleasure craft have been told to stay away, for the waters around the northern Bahamas are full of debris.
Rubio told Miami public radio and television station WLRN that the aid must go through proper channels.
“If we deliver a bunch of stuff they don’t need, we’re creating a problem. We have got to take it to the right place so they know how to distribute it.” Rubio said.
John Rood, a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas under President George W. Bush, was traveling to the Bahamas to be Florida’s “point person” in the relief efforts.
DeSantis said Rood, a Jacksonville businessman, will quickly assess the needs.
“A lot of people want to help, which is good. It’s a great impulse. But we also don’t want this stuff being stuck in some warehouse where it never ends up being used by anybody,” DeSantis said.
It may be very hard to hold Floridians back, though.
Harbourside Place, a shopping plaza in Jupiter, said it was teaming up with several local businesses to send supplies and relief. It chartered three helicopters and two private planes to send 10,000 pounds of cargo to the Bahamas.
“We are heartbroken. We have many friends and family in the Bahamas and wanted to do anything we could to help,” Nicholas Mastroianni III, vice president of Harbourside Place, said in a statement.
“The Bahamas is like a second home to us. We felt like it was our duty to give back,” he added.
Two of the helicopters took off Thursday morning. The third, a Black Hawk, is being loaded and will take off this afternoon with water, tarps and other equipment.
Emily Pantelides, a spokesperson for Harbourside, said the flights have received no pushback from the Bahamas or U.S. governments. Bahamian Customs officers and security team making sure supplies get where they need
“I’m not hearing there is any trouble,” she said.
DeSantis said Florida has 100,000 bottles of water stored for the current hurricane season and some of that cache will head to the Bahamas.
On another front, Rubio and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott said they have sent a letter asking the Trump administration to ease visa restrictions for Bahamians with families in the United States.
Tonight I spoke to @realDonaldTrump about the horrific destruction in the Bahamas.
He assured me he will work with us to help the Bahamas. At times of crisis, we come together. That’s exactly what we’re going to do to help our Bahamian brothers and sisters.
“Perhaps one of the most basic yet meaningful steps our government can take immediately is to ensure that those who have lost everything, including family members in some instances, are provided the opportunity for shelter and reunification with family in the United States,” the senators’ letter says.
Florida state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, and a Bahamian American with family in the Bahamas, asked the senator to help on the issue.
DeSantis said that he spoke to Rubio and said the Bahamas may be able to shelter their own.
#Florida has deep ties to The #Bahamas. Many Floridians have family living there.
Today I will be asking the Trump Administration to consider suspending certain visa requirements for citizens of The Bahamas displaced by #HurricaneDorian & with close relatives in the U.S.
DeSantis said it will be up to President Trump’s administration to determine whether to ease restrictions for Bahamians. Temporary protective status is designed to stop foreign nationals in the U.S. from being returned to their home country if that country became unsafe.
As of May 2019, there were 10 countries with TPS, but extending it for Bahamians might be of little help for those still stuck. TPS is granted only to eligible nationals who are already in the U.S.
The governor noted the situation is also different than when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017 and Floridians opened their arms to residents who wanted to flee the destroyed island.
“Hurricane Maria affected American territories so you had U.S. citizens coming,” DeSantis said. “When you are foreign nationals that has to be done consistent with whatever the federal policy is. So we will see how that shakes out.”
Palm Beach Post reporter Chris Persuad contributed to this story
This story will be updated as needed.