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Hurricane Irma damage in the Caribbean.

Who doesn’t love a cruise? It’s nice to be able to unpack once and float around the ocean being coddled and spoiled while you’re moving towards your next destination. I booked a southern Caribbean cruise almost a year ago and I was all set to visit the last two countries on my list in the Caribbean: Dominica and Antigua. In late August, all hell broke loose on most of the islands on my itinerary. Hurricane Irma and Maria ripped through the Caribbean randomly destroying any islands in their paths. Puerto Rico got hit hardest. St. John was devastated. Even billionaire Richard Branson’s private luxury resort island was obliterated.

I called my cruise adviser and asked him if my cruise was still going. He hadn’t heard otherwise. I called Royal Caribbean directly. I was told that they’d notify me if there were any changes. How could there not be changes? How fast can you put an island back together? I checked all the websites I could find that had information on the ports. What was open? What was closed? I was chasing my tail. I wouldn’t find out until a few weeks before the cruise.

The lineup changed… and changed again. When it was all said and done, it was a different cruise.

Our first stop was St. Thomas.  It was immediately clear on arrival that this U.S. Virgin Island had suffered badly. There were cars on the side of the road that looked like props from a zombie apocalypse movie. Roads were damaged, and there piles of rubbish where buildings once stood. I rented a Jeep and drove to the eastern part of the island. I had originally planned to take the short ferry ride to St. John until I discovered there were no rental cars there anymore and some of the roads were still blocked with debris.

In fact, it had taken over a month for my rental car company to retrieve the damaged vehicles it had been renting on the other side. I looked at some aerial photos of before and after. St. John was no longer the poster child it had been for the Caribbean. The bright green vegetation that had been captured on satellite photos had changed to brown. Magen’s Bay in St. Thomas was hit hard and many of its beautiful palm trees and beachfront were swept into the ocean. Power was out on much of the island.

In spite of all of this, the residents had a good attitude and were happy to see tourists were coming back. St. Maarten and Dominica were taken off the itinerary. Cruise ships that had planned on going to those islands picked other islands to replace them and some ports had double or triple the number of ships normally docked there. You can imagine how crowded this can be with thousands of tourists coming ashore from each ship. In the case of St. Lucia, my cruise ship officials discovered that the port was maxed out and chose the less-traveled island of Martinique. Since Martinique is French speaking, it’s more of a European destination and there were less ships in the harbor. With the exception of St. Thomas, most of the islands we visited were largely unaffected by the hurricane.

I discovered that my cruise line was actually spending money to help some of the islands get back on their feet and even helping plant new palm trees to replace the damaged ones on the more popular beaches. Most of the cruise destinations are very dependent on tourist dollars for their survival and the cruise ship is dependent on good destinations, so working together makes sense. 

Being a patient tourist helps the islands as well. It’s impossible to make a frozen drink if you don’t have electricity and it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t get WiFi. The most important thing is to be aware that whatever island you’re visiting isn’t Disneyland. It’s a real place, with real people and real problems.

Those in the tourist industry want to show you their best, but as they struggle with putting their homes and businesses back together, the infrastructure is probably not going to be at it’s best. Some of the islands are going to be off the list for a while. The best thing to do is if you’re shopping for a cruise, check here for the current status of the ports and plan accordingly. If you’re already booked and you find yourself on an island that’s rebuilding, be patient and supportive of the residents. You can also donate to the relief fund and find out more detailed information at the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

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