After the Category 5 hurricane, companies that often have a difficult relationship with the Bahamas have stepped in to help with relief. But is it enough to repair their image?
At 76, disabled, with half the roof of her Grand Bahama home blown off and facing the prospect of months without electricity, Myrtle Cartwright decided she had to leave.
Ms. Cartwright escaped in luxury: On Friday, she boarded Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration with about 1,200 other Hurricane Dorian survivors and headed for Palm Beach, Fla. She had her own handicap-accessible cabin.
“They even had a medical attendant come and see if I was O.K., because I have hypertension,” Ms. Cartwright said. “Someone had a heart attack on the ship and a helicopter took them off the ship at 12 o’clock at night to the hospital. If they were at Freeport, they would not have made it.”
The Grand Celebration was the first to dock at the Grand Bahama port last week, and the ship arrived packed with doctors and nurses. Bahamas Paradise only sails to the Bahamas, and so company officials decided that instead of sidelining its ships and waiting for better times, it would launch a humanitarian mission to help the thousands of people forced from their homes who lacked food and running water.
Bahamas Paradise joined Royal Caribbean, Disney, Norwegian and Carnival and other cruise companies in providing among the most robust corporate responses to Hurricane Dorian, which hit the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm and has so far killed at least 50 people and wrecked thousands of homes on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands.
The efforts are notable because the cruise companies have long had a contentious relationship with the Bahamas, replete with protests over their impact on the islands from activist groups — and in some cases, checkered environmental legacies. Now, Royal Caribbean is serving 20,000 meals a day and helping shuttle people off Grand Bahama to Nassau, and Carnival is spending $1 million on medical supplies. But some industry critics argue that they should do even more to help a country that brings them billions of dollars a year.
Nearly five million cruise ship passengers visited the Bahamas last year, each spending about $90 while on land.
So far, only Bahamas Paradise and Royal Caribbean have been using their boats to ferry passengers to safer locations. Baleària, a Spanish ferry company that operates out of Bimini and Grand Bahama, was the object of widespread social media scorn because it was charging passengers a fare to get off storm-battered Grand Bahama and kicked off 119 passengers, when American immigration officials said they needed travel visas to get into the United States.
“The cruise lines are all taking advantage of the good publicity to portray themselves as caring, charitable organizations, but they are offering only a pittance in relief aid to the Bahamas given their enormous revenues,” said James M. Walker, a maritime lawyer in Miami who represents plaintiffs in civil lawsuits against cruise ships companies.
He particularly singled out Carnival Cruise lines, which is under court-ordered supervision by the Department of Justice for illegal dumping at sea.
In April 2017, Princess, one of its companies, pleaded guilty to felony charges for deliberately dumping oil-contaminated waste from one of its vessels and trying to cover it up. The company paid a $40 million fine. Carnival paid another $20 million fine this summer for violating its probation by doing things like dumping plastics near the Bahamas and trying to cheat on the court-ordered inspections.
“A donation now of around $1 million to $2 million to the Bahamas in hurricane relief aid will not make much of a difference, although it makes for good press given Carnival’s track record,” Mr. Walker said.
Carnival’s foundation donated $1 million to Direct Relief, an aid organization, to provide medical supplies to the Bahamas and the company’s chairman, Micky Arison, donated another $1 million to the relief effort.
Terry Thornton, senior vice president of nautical and port operations for Carnival, said the company’s donations and the environmental penalties were separate. The most important thing the companies can do is bring their business back to the islands, he said. Carnival is running its scheduled cruises to Freeport, and dropping off supplies for the storm-damaged area, but its passengers are not disembarking as they usually would.
Mr. Thornton defended the company’s record of helping out destinations hit hard by storms, including 2017’s Hurricane Irma. “Our track record with what we have done is pretty consistent,” he said. “I’ve worked for Carnival for 33 years; we have done this before.”
He noted that Carnival sent a ship to St. Croix to house relief workers after Irma. (The company was reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the use of the ship.)
Disney, which has been widely criticized by environmentalists for a proposed project to develop a sliver of Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas as a cruise point, also donated $1 million to the storm efforts.
Sam Duncombe, executive director of the local environmental watchdog organization reEarth, one of the groups trying to stop the Disney development, said that while contributions from cruise companies are welcome, the response has been uneven.
“I have to thank Royal Caribbean, because they are actually evacuating people and bringing supplies,” she said. “Companies make billions of dollars off of us.”
Ms. Duncombe said that the priority should be evacuating people.
“People are desperate to get off of those islands, and these cruise ships have the capacity to move thousands of people at one time,” she said. “That could have been five or six trips for these boats, if they all came together and helped us all out.”
Royal Caribbean has transported 810 people and donated almost 150,000 bottles of water as of Tuesday the company said.
Ken Dames, 54, a building superintendent in Baker’s Bay on Great Guyana Cay, one of the Abacos, said in an interview in Marsh Harbour, the biggest town on Great Abaco, that he thought the cruise lines should help “as a good will gesture,” especially considering that they benefit from their relationship with the Bahamas.
“The Bahamas depends on them,” Mr. Dames said, “and they depend on the Bahamas.”
But he pointed out that Marsh Harbour, the hardest hit settlement on the Abacos, is not equipped to receive large vessels, so ferrying evacuees to the ships from the city’s port would be logistically complicated and expensive.
Tracy Quan, Royal Caribbean’s associate vice president of corporate communications, said she believes Royal Caribbean has a moral obligation to the countries its ships frequent.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, Minister of Tourism and Aviation for the Bahamas, acknowledged that the government’s relationship with the cruise companies has at times been “rocky,” but he said the companies are doing better, namely by designing projects closer to town centers that better integrate into the local economies. The companies are criticized for operating on private islands in the Bahamas, which do little to boost local economies.
For Hurricane Dorian, he said, they have “risen to the occasion.”
Oneil Khosa, the chief executive of Bahamas Paradise, said he is still evaluating how to continue helping the Bahamas: Should he offer cruises to passengers designed for humanitarian aid? Evacuations, he said, felt like “the right thing to do.”
“We were there, we had room,” he said, explaining the company’s reaction. “If you are thirsty today, it doesn’t help you if I bring you water in 10 days. We are close, we can do it, we know the waters, let’s go.”