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  • FEMA charters cruise ship for Hurricane Irma relief housing off St. Thomas

    Port of Palm Beach’s sole cruise ship — Grand Celebration — will begin a three-month sabbatical Saturday when it arrives in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands on a hurricane relief mission, its operator Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said.

    The 750-cabin cruise ship, which can accommodate up to 1,900 passengers, is being chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to house National Guard members helping island residents to rebuild following damage caused by Hurricane Irma.

    St. Thomas was also facing an additional threat from Hurricane Maria, now barreling through the eastern Caribbean. Maria has already done significant damage in Puerto Rico and Dominica.

    “We are providing housing, meals and other hotel services to the first responders,” said Maria Miller, the cruise line’s chief marketing officer, in an email Wednesday. “The ship will be their ‘home base’ over the course of the charter.”

    While Bahamas Paradise would not discuss the value of the FEMA charter, Miller said the company was being compensated to cover its “loss of business and revenue over the period.”

    Grand Celebration is expected to remain in St. Thomas through late December, the cruise company said. The ship’s regular two-night sailings from the Riviera Beach seaport to Freeport, Grand Bahama Island should resume on Dec. 23.

    Customers who have already purchased Bahamas cruises directly from the cruise line for departures during the charter period are being offered refunds or a $100 onboard spending credit if they re-book for a later date.

    “We will be reaching out to all of our guests and travel partners this week,” said Oneil Khosa, company CEO, in a statement. “We feel badly about this 90 day disruption but believe the extensive needs of the St. Thomas people to be of greater importance at this time.”

    On Thursday and Friday, Bahamas Paradise offered a special $39 per person nightly rate for cabins on Grand Celebration to local residents seeking a cool refuge from overheated homes that lost power or sustained damage during Irma.

    Other South Florida-based cruise companies are involved in humanitarian relief efforts throughout the Caribbean in the wake of Irma.

    Last Friday, the Norwegian Sky arrived in Miami from St. Thomas with hundreds of stranded visitors and displaced residents after Irma damaged homes and businesses, Norwegian Cruise Line said.

    The ship also offloaded 35 palettes of much-needed relief supplies during that rescue mission, including plywood, tarps, hammers, nails, bedding and towels and non-perishable food.

    Last week, cruise behemoth Carnival Corp., the Miami Heat Charitable Fund and the Micky and Madeleine Arison Family Foundation pledged up to $10 million in funding and in-kind support for Hurricane Irma relief. And $2.5 million was immediately donated to three relief organizations to support urgent hurricane recovery efforts.

    The Doral-based cruise company owns and operates nine cruise lines including Carnival, Princess, Holland America, Costa, Seabourn and Cunard. Eleven Carnival Cruise Line ships are transporting emergency supplies to impacted Florida and Caribbean ports as they sail to those regions.

    The relief aid will benefit hard-hit islands such as Grand Turk, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, Antigua and Barbuda, Carnival Corp. said.

    “Hurricane Irma’s impact strikes close to home both in our home state of Florida and across the Caribbean, where we and our brands have made many friends and partners over many years,” company CEO Arnold Donald, said in a statement.

    Royal Caribbean International also sent three ships to impacted areas with provisions and to assist in evacuation efforts, and plans to continue assisting in the coming weeks. Provisions delivered so far include 17,060 gallons of water; 7,831 gallons of milk; 7,000 pounds of ice and 4,200 rolls of toilet tissue, the company said.

    By Arlene Satchell, Sun Sentinel

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