October 2, 2017
(5:43 p.m. EDT) -- The photos on Macouba Johnson's phone show long, roping lines of people, many holding umbrellas, waiting for medicine or check-ups at St. Thomas East End Medical Center, where she works as a nurse.
With no power, patients and staff could not go inside the building, but Johnson and the other medical professionals could do blood pressure checks, perform pre-natal check-ups and, perhaps most importantly, refill prescriptions.
"One day we filled more than 700. People just had to bring the bottles," said Johnson, who was on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas with her two children. "Pharmacies wanted cash even if people had insurance because they couldn’t check the insurance. It was a lot money, $800 up front."
It's been more than a week since Hurricanes Irma and Maria swept through the Caribbean, and those who remain on the islands critically need basic supplies. As part of the humanitarian mission that is bringing Johnson and her children to the mainland, Adventure of the Seas divided 180 pallets of goods including food, water and medicine between the ports in San Juan, St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Each pallet can hold about 1,000 pounds, said Keston Masano, the ship's inventory manager. While he wasn’t able to give specific amounts of each item, he said the pallets contained basic over-the-counter medications like aspirin; dried snacks like granola bars and cereals; canned goods including fruits and beans; and thousands of bottles of water.
- 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 first and second reports of a three-part series, after displaced residents, stranded travelers and friends and family of Royal Caribbean are rescued from Puerto Rico.
"Everyone's committed to getting supplies in and returning to normalcy," said the ship's captain, Tomas Busto, who said his parents' home and his own property in Puerto Rico suffered from water damage. "Everyone has been affected severely, no matter who you are."
Adventure of the Seas will arrive in Fort Lauderdale Tuesday, with thousands of evacuees from those three ports, as well as more than 110 dogs, at least five cats, three birds and one guinea pig. The ship's 1200 crew members were given basic instructions to "just look after the people. Get them a room, a shower, hot food," Hotel Director Irfan Hurriyetoglu said. "They're regular guests. It's what we do every day."
Adventure of the Seas began its humanitarian efforts mid-September, after Irma had passed through. The ship, with about 3,300 paying guests, flipped its itinerary so that its first port stop was in St. Maarten, where it took on about 280 evacuees while dropping off relief supplies.
Maria crashed into the islands two weeks later. With its September 30 cruise canceled, Adventure of the Seas traveled first to San Juan, then St. Croix, then St. Thomas, picking up people and leaving aid pallets at each port.
The ship will return to work October 6, picking up paying passengers in San Juan for a cruise that will include stops in Martinique, St. Kitts and Antigua. It will bring more supplies to Puerto Rico at that time. Once the ship unloads the goods, it is up to local officials to distribute them.
Busto believes the islands will bring their tourism industries back online quickly.
"Psychologically, it's very important that we restore service so everyone can reconstruct their lives," Busto said.
- Cruise Lines, Ports Contribute to Hurricane Irma and Maria Relief Efforts
- Hurricane Season 2017: Which Caribbean Cruise Ports Are Open?
Meanwhile, many on Adventure of the Seas said they were unsure how their futures would immediately play out. Johnson said the St. Thomas home she shares with her 6-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter lost power after Irma. They had no generator. Stores quickly ran out of ice. She booked flights to Atlanta for the three of them. The flights were canceled.
After Maria hit, Johnson continued to work as a nurse, waiting hours in gas lines only to be limited in the amount of fuel she could buy, and to live in her damaged home. Broken windows left her bed wet and covered in broken glass. She and the children pulled two twin mattresses into the living room to sleep. Aid workers provided them with some water and MREs (meals, ready-to-eat).
The opportunity to leave came up suddenly: Johnson was listening to the radio Saturday and heard that Adventure of the Seas still had room available for St. Thomas evacuees. The ship was in port at the time.
She drove quickly to the port, confirmed there was space, then drove about 30 minutes to her home in the hills, packed her belongings and children into the car, and returned to the ship.
"Because of the rains and boulders in the road, it took longer than usual, and I was just praying," she said.
Johnson and her children will stay with family in Georgia indefinitely. Every aspect of life in St. Thomas right now is a challenge; one of Johnson's friends said she went to a laundromat at 6:45 in the morning and was the 43rd person in line. By early afternoon, only 15 people had used the facilities.
"You can hardly get anything done," she said. "It feels better just to be away right now. A lot of other people have it a lot worse."
--By Natalie Pompilio, Cruise Critic contributor