After Hurricane Irma struck the tropical island of St. Thomas, visitors on vacation and locals alike were left stranded.
With airports shut down, and the island without power, people feared that the second storm- Hurricane Jose could bring even more devastation to St. Thomas. Supplies of food were scarce, there was barely any electricity, and the worst part of all was that Hurricane Jose was approaching fast. Little did anyone know, help was on the way, but only for a fortunate few…
Two hundred people waited on the dock in St. Thomas on Friday, September 8 after a hit from Hurricane Irma shut down airports. No one knew that a large ship with enough room to transport all the tourists was approaching the dock. It was coming just in time, but not for everyone…
The ship was chartered by the Marriott hotel chain for guests who had to stay behind because the airport was closed. On September 7, Marriott International chartered the 177-foot, 30,000-ton ship from the Dominican Republic at a cost of $100,000. They began coordinating with local authorities for permission for the ship to land and evacuate as many of their guests as possible.
This rescue operation would not be smooth sailing, however, as the ship still faced hurdles to weather, timing and logistics. Tim Sheldon, president of the Caribbean and Latin America for Marriott International, put together this operation from his command center in Orlando, with the help of a mainland-based Marriott crisis team. He explained that the safety of the Marriott hotel guests was their top priority, especially in a dire situation like this.
As soon as it was clear that Hurricane Irma was heading towards the islands, Marriott hotels followed protocols they had in place to prepare for potentially severe storms. The first step was to reduce occupancy levels as much as possible using departing vessels and planes from the island before the storm hit. But, quickly, the airport shut down and regular transportation was out of the question. Marriott’s options became extremely limited…
At this point, 620 guests remained across three Marriott hotels on St. Thomas. Hurricane Irma had already struck, leaving guests not merely uncomfortable but also scared for their lives. With Hurricane Jose approaching, Tim Sheldon knew that the hotels had already sustained enough damage from Irma, and he didn’t want to further traumatize Marriott’s guests. Plus, he wasn’t sure that they could supply the guests with enough food if they stayed.
Operations and security teams evaluated any ideas they could think of for evacuating guests- including military planes, helicopters, and boats. But, the solution they came up with on September 7, was to commission a ferry to depart from the Dominican Republic, go on to Puerto Rico, and then depart from there on Friday, September 8, to collect their guests…
Tim was uncertain whether this rescue operation this was going to work. With Hurricane Jose on its way, they had a very limited window to get their guests off the island. Additionally, it wasn’t clear that they were going to get authorization from the U.S. Coast Guard at the time even once the ship was under way. They also didn’t know if the ferry would be allowed to dock on the island- it was up to the owner of the dock in St. Thomas to make this call.
There was also the issue of getting the guests to the dock from the hotel, with all of the damaged infrastructure. The roads were impassable due to hurricane damage, but the minister of tourism was helpful in finding appropriate transportation for Marriott guests. But, because of crowd control concerns on the part of the company that owned the dock, they would not allow people to gather there ahead of time- they had to arrive almost exactly at the moment the boat was ready to accept them on board…
Tim says they had to operate within very strict parameters to have the best chance of making the local authorities comfortable with this operation. Being that the government entities had power over exits and documentation on the island, it was ultimately up to them. Tim recalls that the authorities required detailed information on the guests, including legal names, ages, dates of birth, and medical information for every passenger they were going to allow to come on board. On Friday, September 8, the ferry arrived at the dock on the island of St. Thomas, and it was the moment of truth.
The Moment Of Truth
The entire operation remained touch and go, but ultimately, all of the Marriott hotel guests were admitted on board and able to leave the island of St Thomas. They were then en-route to Puerto Rico, where they were provided with accommodations at other Marriott properties at no charge, as well as money and food for incidentals. But, the large ship had dozens of extra seats, so why weren’t other stranded tourists allowed to board?
Tourists Left Stranded
Shortly after the ship arrived, about three dozen people (tourists not staying at Marriott hotels who were also stranded due to the hurricane), watched as the ferry pulled away with hundreds of extra empty seats. “It was really hard to see people with kids and the elderly who don’t have anywhere to stay get turned away by this boat…For some people, this was their only hope… After the boat left, they felt hopeless.”
Tourists left on the island to ride out Hurricane Jose were both devastated and furious. They claim that it was Marriott’s decision to not allow them on the boat so they can get flights back home, but Marriott International states otherwise. Tim said that the St. Thomas port manager instructed the crew that anyone not listed on the manifest could not get on the ship. With Jose approaching, there was no time to negotiate passage for the people who were left stranded…
The company had already worked with authorities to get the boat into the port on short notice in an emergency and to hand in detailed information about all of the passengers boarding. Despite this, Tim claims, that he had a desire to assist those 35 people left stranded. “We certainly had room aboard, which makes this both frustrating and disheartening,” he said.
Tim says that general managers who run Marriott hotels on St. Thomas tried to work with dock personnel to allow them to get on the ship. “We were told by the port manager that if they weren’t on the manifest, we weren’t able to bring them on the boat.” Furthermore, they were instructed to have their boat out of the port by nightfall…
Without any further choice, Marriott hotels made the decision to get their guests onto the ship and out of St. Thomas that night. In a statement, they said: “Marriott places a priority on the safety and security of our guests, but we also have a long tradition of looking out for the greater community…In this case, we weren’t able to help and as grateful as we are that we were able to transport our guests, we are saddened that we were not able to do the same for more people.” But, those stranded tourists saw this as a case of corporate callousness during a life-threatening situation…
Cody Howard, a professional storm chaser who had been contracted to shoot weather footage on the island, was one of the tourists denied access to Marriott’s chartered ship. He said that local officials were pushing for the tourists to get on the boat, and they were using any limited resources they had for islanders who couldn’t sail away from the aftermath. Howard said: “They had 200 seats still on board but since we didn’t have a Marriott reservation, we weren’t allowed on the boat…They called the CEO and he said they didn’t want the liability.”
Ultimately, Hurricane Jose turned north and had minimal effect on the island of St. Thomas. But, as the tourists watched the Marriott-chartered ship pull away, they didn’t know how long St. Thomas would be cut off from supplies of food and water. People were also scared for their lives, as reports of lawlessness were occurring on other Caribbean islands.
Whose Fault Was It?
Howard spoke for all of the stranded tourists saying: “The whole sense I got out of it was: We didn’t pay enough money to stay at a Marriott place, therefore, we weren’t good enough to get on that boat.” Still, Tim argues that it was not Marriott’s decision to deny access to these guests, and the debate of whose fault it was would be ongoing…
Since the decision for this ship to turn away St. Thomas’ tourists and locals, troubling posts on social media have increased. They come from anyone who was denied access to the boat- most of the 35 people left stranded. “They denied humanitarian aid to women and elderly people.”
Accessing The Damage
Luckily, a Norwegian Cruise ship was able to safely transport the rest of the tourists left behind on the island of St. Thomas, but it came four days after Marriott’s chattered ship left. Now, residents in St. Thomas fear that food supplies could run low before new stocks come in. With so much damage to the island, they are only now starting to understand what was lost and what remains. Stay strong St. Thomas!