Cruise passengers whose vacations got cut short because of Hurricane Irma arrived early in Miami Thursday to find they had few options for a way out.
With the number of flight cancellations increasing and last-minute flights out of Miami selling for sky-high fares in the thousands of dollars, cruisers who didn’t plan for the change in itinerary were left scrambling Thursday.
Also scrambling was Norwegian Cruise Line, which was working Thursday morning to move passengers from the 2,004-passenger Norwegian Sky, which docked in Miami ahead of schedule, to the 4,266-passenger Norwegian Escape, which is headed away from the storm Thursday evening.
The cruise ships aren't staying here — they're leaving. They should have gone to another port.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio
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Florida Sen. Marco Rubio questioned why cruise operators — and the Coast Guard — had chosen to allow ships to come into PortMiami early “and drop off a bunch of passengers who now have to figure out how to get back home” while plane tickets and hotel rooms are impossibly scarce.
“The cruise ships aren't staying here — they're leaving,” a clearly annoyed Rubio said from the county's emergency operations center in Doral. “They should have gone to another port.”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county is in touch with the cruise lines to ensure they have made arrangements for passengers who don’t live in the area.
“Maybe they should have been dropped somewhere else," said Gimenez, speaking from the emergency operations center in Doral on Thursday afternoon. “Not everybody on those cruise ships is on a flight. Some of them are locals — they want to get back home.”
New Yorker Tara Burke posted a plea to friends on Facebook who may have a helicopter, plane, pilot's license or advice for her sister and niece who arrived on the Sky Thursday at PortMiami.
We have no reports of anyone that we left without accommodation.
Norwegian spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello
“OK now I need help. Norwegian is no help. They are dropping us in Miami [and] have minimal ability to make arrangements. Airlines don't have flights. Hotels are not taking reservations and gas stations have no gas so rental cars are the locals choice to get out. THIS SUCKS!!!!” Burke posted.
Norwegian had previously announced that travelers on the Escape, which also arrived in Miami Thursday, could remain on the ship if they do not live in Miami and can’t secure a flight out of the area. But the same did not apply to passengers on the smaller Sky.
Norwegian spokeswoman Vanessa Picariello said Thursday that the cruise line had been moving guests who did not have a place to stay from the Sky to the Escape. By Thursday morning, about 4,000 passengers has been accommodated, including an additional 30 on Thursday, “meaning a lot of people were taking us up on that offer,” Picariello said. The Escape is scheduled to leave Miami Thursday evening on a route away from the storm, the cruise line said.
Picariello said Norwegian is also working with area hotels and has staff at the port to help get passengers accommodated.
“For those guests that approached us at the pier, we were able to assist with hotel accommodations,” she said. “We have no reports of anyone that we left without accommodation.”
Burke’s family members got a lucky break at noon Thursday.
“She made it to an airport! And has a ticket...That took a miracle and a tremendous amount of coordination in a state of chaos, desperation and exhaustion,” Burke posted on Facebook. “This ‘war goddess’ [referring to Irma] has already caused an enormous amount of destruction, fear and havoc. A force of enormous magnitude. God be with us all!”
For travelers flying into Florida for a cruise, many were also in a state of limbo as they waited to see if cruise lines would cancel their voyages.
California resident Adrianne Davis, who is scheduled to sail on a Carnival Cruise Line voyage to Cuba Thursday afternoon, is worried she could get stuck in Florida if the cruise line cancels her voyage last minute due to Irma.
Davis flew into Tampa at midnight Thursday, but as of Thursday afternoon, the Carnival Paradise was still planning to sail.
The Doral-based cruise line had canceled four sailings as of Thursday: Carnival Liberty’s three-day Bahamas cruise scheduled to leave Orlando’s Port Canaveral on Thursday, a three-day Bahamas sailing on the Carnival Victory from Miami, scheduled to depart Friday, a five-day eastern Caribbean cruise on the Carnival Splendor from Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades scheduled for Saturday, and Carnival Liberty’s four-day Bahamas cruise from Port Canaveral scheduled for Sunday.
If I get on that plane today and I’m in Tampa tomorrow morning at midnight, then I am like every other Floridian trying to get out if [Carnival decides] to cancel.
Adrianne Davis, California resident sailing on a Carnival cruise from Tampa
“If I get on that plane today and I’m in Tampa tomorrow morning at midnight, then I am like every other Floridian trying to get out if [Carnival decides] to cancel,” said Davis, a marketing director in Long Beach. “You are driving people to come to a state that is on pins and needles right now.”
“We are continuing to monitor with respect to the planned itinerary but no changes have been made at this time,” cruise line spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz said in a statement.
“Our first priority is always to ensure guest and crew safety. If we can operate a voyage to preserve people's highly anticipated vacation plans, we will do so,” De La Cruz said. “We know from decades of experience with these storms that slight shifts in the forecast track can make a difference in our operations so final determinations are not always made several days in advance although behind the scenes we are planning for a variety of different scenarios.”
We know from decades of experience with these storms that slight shifts in the forecast track can make a difference in our operations so final determinations are not always made several days in advance although behind the scenes we are planning for a variety of different scenarios.
Jennifer De La Cruz, Carnival Cruise Line
On Thursday Carnival said it was “still evaluating the ability to call on Havana, as scheduled, and will notify our guests if any modifications are needed at embarkation [Thursday].”
Only Royal Caribbean International has opted to keep ships away from port as the storm passes. The Miami-based cruise line has delayed the return of three ships, Oasis, Harmony and Allure of the Seas, all of which are in the Atlantic, until after Irma.
“Due to the unpredictability of the storm, we plan to keep all of our guests currently sailing on these ships safely out of harm’s way,” the cruise line said in a statement Wednesday.
Miami Herald writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.