From the Bridge: Hurricane Irma Unprecedented for Cruise Industry

September 10, 2017
on the beach before a powerful storm

(5 p.m. EDT) -- Hurricane Harvey was bad, but Hurricane Irma, which made landfall in the Caribbean as a Category 5 storm with 185-mile-per-hour winds, has had the most devastating effect of any hurricane we've ever seen (and that's a contest no one wants to win).

The Caribbean islands of Barbuda, St. Martin/St. Maarten, Anguilla, St. Thomas, St. John, Tortola and other BVI islands are devastated; others, like Grand Turk and Cuba, have experienced significant damage. When you look at the images, it's almost surprising that there hasn't been more loss of life, and for that we're grateful. We are also thinking about people on the islands impacted by Irma who survived the storm and now have to survive its aftermath with suffering losses of other kinds – homes, communities, businesses, hospitals. And now we wait, worry and watch as the storm progresses through Florida.

It's clear from conversations on Cruise Critic's forums that Hurricane Irma feels personal to a lot of members who have visited the Eastern Caribbean so many times on a ship. We think of the folks who have worked hard to make our trips there so memorable - those who work at its restaurants, take tourists on excursions, staff shops, and work in other businesses that depend on tourism from people like you and me, from people who also love these islands.

When you see the devastation of the islands most impacted on television, it's understandable to wonder how they can ever come back.

They can. It won't be easy. They won't do it alone. But they will come back.

On Cruise Critic, our editorial team has been working around the clock to keep up with the latest developments and will continue to do so. In the meantime, I'm pulling out a few facts that are particularly important – and after nearly 20 years of covering hurricanes and their impacts on travel, adding a few of my own:

  1. Fifteen ports were affected; eight of those were nearly destroyed. It will take months, if not longer, for some islands to rebuild. Norwegian Cruise Line has already announced it will not be sending ships to the Eastern Caribbean until November at the earliest ;ships will instead head to the Western Caribbean. It won't be the last to make this change. We predict more announcements to come.
  2. Miami, which looked to be facing the same wrath of Irma as the Caribbean, is the global center of the cruise industry. As cruise line employees have been boarding up their own houses, making evacuation plans, and worrying whether they'll have a home and office to come back to, they've also been feverishly working to serve passengers and crew. With three of North America's busiest cruise ports - Miami, Ft. Lauderdale's Port Everglades and Orlando-centric Port Canaveral – projected to lie directly in Irma's path, some 50 sailings were impacted across seven cruise lines – with more coming. It's rare to outright cancel a cruise, but Irma caused at least 20 outright cancellations (and more might come), with another 16 itineraries revised, and 16 cruises shortened. Imagine the number of cruise employees it takes to make all those changes.
  3. This we've never really seen to such extent: Cruise lines, after cancelling voyages, are using ships to support rescue efforts and deliver emergency supplies and serve evacuation needs. As we've reported on Cruise Critic, these include Norwegian Cruise Line, which, in cooperation with U.S. Virgin Island authorities, has deployed Norwegian Sky to St. Thomas to pick-up 2,000 stranded travelers. Royal Caribbean has used its Enchantment of the Seas to give a home to employees who had to evacuate. RCI also plans to send Adventure of the Seas to St. Maarten to contribute clothing and water, and will pick up stranded travelers there. Majesty of the Seas is headed to St. Thomas and St. John, to drop off supplies and help with rescue efforts. Carnival is using ships to send supplies to St. Kitts and Grand Turk. We're told that some cruise lines are already planning to bring regular deliveries of most-needed supplies to the region on an ongoing basis; the industry has already reached out, in part through an organization called the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association, to ask the affected islands how it can concretely support rebuilding efforts.
  4. Taking a tip from the Harvey playbook, in which both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean offered passengers on existing cruises a chance to get off in a safe port or stay onboard for a longer-than-scheduled cruise, lines like Carnival, NCL and MSC also offered a port-from-the-storm to passengers who feared getting stranded in Florida.

Both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey have generated much conversation on our forums about what happens to ships during hurricanes, as well as debate over passenger rights and should-you-or-shouldn't-you-buy-travel-insurance. Here are a few messages we'd like to reiterate:

  1. The Caribbean is a big place. Spanning a pretty sprawling 1.063 million square miles, the Caribbean has three regions: Eastern, Western, and Southern. You may be in Cozumel – as has been the case for most of the ships that fled Miami, actually – and feel no impact from a storm that's affecting the Leewards (such as St. Maarten, St. Barths, Tortola and St. Thomas).
  2. Ships can move while land-based resorts cannot. This is why, during even a huge hurricane in the Caribbean, cruise lines can alter itineraries to keep ships' out of the way of dangerous conditions. Staying safe is the number one concern.
  3. Travel insurance is a must. We're huge proponents of buying travel insurance in any instance, but if you're planning to cruise in hurricane-affected regions, from Mexico's Riviera to Canada/New England (and of course on any voyage in the Caribbean), buy a policy that will protect you. Hurricane season lasts, technically, from June 1 to November 30 (although we've seen storms start in May and December). Peak season is roughly mid-August through mid-October.

One thing to keep in mind once Irma's dissipated is: How can we help? Because in the end, whether in good times or bad – and hurricanes this size are definitely the latter – what's meaningful about travel is the empathy to connect and support. Continuing to support and help these islands rebuild should be top of mind for all cruisers – because only then will we see these places we love survive.

--By Carolyn Spencer Brown, Chief Content Strategist

Want to help? Make a donation to the Red Cross Hurricane Relief Efforts.