Evacuees hug next to cruise ship

(9:23 a.m. EDT) -- As their two-week Puerto Rican vacation approached its September 20th end, Albuquerque residents Angelina Gonzalez and Sarah Carrillo, both 23, heard a tropical storm was headed towards the island. They shrugged it off, following the lead of locals.

Then seemingly overnight, “it was a Category Something already,” Gonzalez said. “We literally called every single airline trying to get out.”

They couldn’t find flights. Hurricane Maria ripped into San Juan on the 20th while they huddled with other guests in a hotel stairwell, listening to what sounded like metal clanking.

Only Thursday, after more than a week of waiting, were they able to begin the journey home: Puerto Rican tourism officials had booked them on Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas for a humanitarian cruise heading to mainland Florida.

“We feel much more relaxed knowing we’re heading home,” Carrillo said.

The tourists are two of approximately 3,800 evacuees from San Juan, St. Croix and St. Thomas who will board Adventure of the Seas to head back home; the cruise fare is complimentary for evacuees. Royal Caribbean put the ship, which homeports in San Juan, into humanitarian service after the devastation from Hurricane Maria forced cancellation of the September 30 sailing. Besides assisting with evacuations, the ship will drop off necessary supplies to the affected islands as part of its ongoing relief and recovery efforts.

  • Cruise Critic is onboard Adventure of the Seas, as the ship sails its humanitarian cruise from San Juan -- with stops in St. Thomas and St. Croix -- to Fort Lauderdale. Read our second report of a three-part series, which follows evacuees and offers a glimpse of life onboard.

When it arrived in San Juan, Adventure of the Seas was carrying medical teams, relief supplies and 500 generators; "The Caribbean is our home and we're doing everything we can to help impacted islands get back on their feet," the line said on their Facebook page. It's all the part of an industry-wide effort by cruise lines to pitch in to help the ports and islands most affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. (Read our line-by-line breakdown of cruise line relief efforts.)

At the port in Old San Juan Thursday, thousands of people formed a line that stretched for more than three city blocks to board the ship. Among them were vacationers who’d been stranded, like Gonzalez and Carrillo; Puerto Rican residents who decided to leave as the island scrambles to reset; Royal Caribbean employees, their families and friends.

Woman hands water to travelers waiting in line

There were people using wheelchairs, walkers and canes. Children of all ages, animals in carriers, dogs – pitbulls, Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus -- on leashes. One woman had a half bag of dog food securely taped to her suitcase’s extended handle. A man carried a small jug of cat litter and a carrier holding the cat it belonged to.

Some of those waiting reported arriving at 8 a.m. and still finding themselves far from the check-in point four hours later. But while some in line looked tired and sunburnt, no one complained. Even the animals stayed relatively quiet.

Tourism employees made the wait more bearable by constantly walking up and down the line, handing out water; setting up lines of chairs. At one point, the Cookie Cavalry arrived; two employees from Royal Caribbean brought out a plastic container holding hundreds of cookies - sugar, coconut and oatmeal – which they handed out one by one with tongs.

Those employees, too, had hurricane-related woes. A cab driver picking up passengers from the airport reported that half of his roof had been destroyed. Naireisa Gines Gonzales said the sliding glass doors of her apartment had fallen in, causing rain to puddle in her home. But she shrugged it off. “Just lots of garbage and cleaning,” she said.

Adventure of the Seas was scheduled to leave port around 5 p.m but was only beginning departure preparations around 10 p.m. The ship’s next stop is St. Croix, where passengers will stay on board while relief supplies are unloaded. The same will happen in St. Thomas the next day. The ship will dock in Florida at Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades on Tuesday.

Woman hands water to travelers waiting in line

Among those waiting were Nabila Martinez, 28, and her daughter Catalina, who turned 6 on Thursday. Catalina has severe asthma, and the stress of living without light as well as problems getting medicine prompted Martinez to contact a friend who works for Royal Caribbean. The friend got the pair a cabin.

“I was just trying to get her out. I needed her to get medicine and be calm,” Martinez said. “The hospitals were all packed. They were just attending to people with really big emergencies even though she already has a disease.”

Once in Florida, Martinez said they’ll stay with one of her aunts. But before that, she was showing Catalina the water slides and other things she could play with on board.

“She was so excited being in the line because she knew she was going to breathe again,” Martinez said.

Once all passengers were aboard Thursday, cruise life began as it usually does: with food, drinks, music and a comedy show. Unusual touches included dogs walking the halls and a bird squawking behind one cabin door on Deck 6.

While some might find it strange to think of thousands of people enjoying themselves on a ship while those on other islands await aid, it’s important to realize the trauma many of these passengers have been through.

Gonzalez and Carrillo said they expected to take advantage of the ship’s amenities in the coming days.

Said Gonzalez, “Sure for those extra days, we were at the beach every day, but we couldn’t relax. We were always thinking, ‘Should we go to the airport? Should we be doing something? How are we getting home?’”

--By Natalie Pompilio, Cruise Critic contributor