Stormy Weather

The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was one of the worst on record.


Published Mar 7, 2018 7:13 PM by Stephen L. Caldwell

(Article originally published in Jan/Feb 2018 edition.)

U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Karl Schultz, Commander of the Atlantic Area, summed it up this way: “The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season set historic records with three incredibly powerful Category 4 hurricanes making landfall in the United States in quick succession.”

For the cruise industry, this was bad news. The Caribbean is the industry’s most popular destination, and two of the three Category 4 storms – Irma and Maria – were direct hits. 

The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. However, the industry – as represented by the Cruise Lines International Association, or CLIA – views every season as extreme weather season somewhere in the world. CLIA represents 34 companies, 250 cruise ships and hundreds of global itineraries. 

“It’s the global nature of those itineraries that make the Atlantic hurricane season just one of our weather challenges,” says Rob Griffiths, CLIA’s Vice President for Maritime Policy. “While we talk about how cruise lines dealt with last fall’s hurricanes in the Caribbean, right now CLIA members are tracking cyclones and typhoons affecting their Asian itineraries.” 

Batten Down the Hatches!

Passenger safety and comfort are paramount for the industry and require continual monitoring of weather conditions and other factors that can pose a potential threat. Itineraries are reevaluated and adjusted accordingly. Cruise lines monitor their ships on two levels – at the corporate operations center and on the bridge of their ships. 

“One of the basic rules of professional mariners is that the safest place for a ship is at sea, not near land or in a port,” Griffiths says. “As a storm approaches, the professional officers continually monitor the situation and, in coordination with their operations center, pick the safest quadrant to sail.”

USCG Commander Randy Jenkins, head of the Cruise Ship National Center of Expertise in Fort Lauderdale, concurs: “The cruise lines are very safety conscious, watch the weather, and reroute their voyages accordingly. They know that any passengers that are injured or uncomfortable on a cruise are a negative not just for their cruise line but for the whole industry. This is likely the reason there are very few serious injuries of cruise passengers caused by extreme weather. The worst outcome is usually sea sickness and minor injuries due to slips and falls.”

Ports take their own special precautions. “As hurricanes approach a port, the local Coast Guard sector works with the entire port community to prepare,” explains Commander Janet Espino-Young, Chief of Prevention at Coast Guard Sector San Juan. “At 72 hours out, a maritime bulletin is broadcast to warn mariners about the coming storm. Large ships – like cruise ships – are expected to leave by 12 hours out or sooner, and all inbound vessel traffic is halted 24 hours prior to the storm.” 

Unlike vessels, ports have no choice but to wait and see if they are in the direct path of the storm. The two September hurricanes – Irma and Maria – had similar but slightly divergent paths. For the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), it was like a one-two punch. “Hurricane Irma hit the northern USVI with major damage to St. John and St. Thomas,” notes Espino-Young, “including the major cruise port of Charlotte Amalie. It went north of St. Croix and Puerto Rico, inflicting relatively little damage.” 

That left those two islands as post-storm bases to provide assistance. Then two weeks later Hurricane Maria hit the southern USVI and Puerto Rico, turning those islands from recovery bases to victims themselves, including the port of San Juan.

On the islands farther east, the damage was extensive. Mike Edgerton, Vice President of Hudson Trident Services, a global maritime and port security consultancy, arrived on one affected island a week after one of the hurricanes: “The widespread damage was evident immediately as trees were down, roads blocked and cargo containers strewn about. Some of the worst damage was not from the wind but from the storm surge. Less substantial residences, with wooden sides and corrugated metal roofs, suffered the brunt of the damage. Nonetheless, much of the basic port infrastructure, such as concrete piers and passenger terminals, held up very well.”

The impact on port security, another important consideration, was minimal and temporary. The regulations themselves, as administered by the USCG under the Maritime Transportation Security Act, are performance-based and allow flexibility in implementation. “So the Coast Guard worked with the cruise terminals to implement alternative measures until normal security procedures were reinstated,” notes Espino-Young. “For example, where fences were down, electricity out and CCTV systems down, additional guards were used to provide security to sensitive areas of a facility and to hand-search luggage.”

Ralph Gogliettino, President of Port Security Services, says, “This may seem counterintuitive, but the storms had very little impact on the security posture of the cruise ports. The security systems were back to normal in short order after the storm.” 

Gogliettino adds that when his firm works with Caribbean ports on their security plans, “We go beyond prevention and response and advise them to plan for recovery. And the officials at the port we worked with had well-thought-out plans for recovery. Right after the storms, after they had made sure their homes and families were safe, they followed their plans to reestablish security perimeters and regain control.”

Recovery Efforts

Shipwrecked or missing recreational vessels were one of the Coast Guard’s early priorities for recovery. “In Puerto Rico, there is a marina near the harbor channel in San Juan, and the Coast Guard had to search for missing vessels to make sure they were not submerged and hazardous to navigation of cruise ships or other vessels,” says Espino-Young. “Similarly, they also searched for missing fenders and catwalks that were missing from the cruise pier.” In Puerto Rico, the Coast Guard identified 375 wrecked vessels. In St. Thomas, a large ferry undergoing repairs capsized at Crown Bay, one of the cruise terminals in Charlotte Amalie.

The cruise lines themselves were an important part of the recovery effort, adds the Coast Guard’s Commander Jenkins: “As soon as the cruise lines cancelled some of their cruises due to the hurricanes, they offered up their vessels and crews for the recovery efforts. These vessels were used to evacuate stranded tourists and residents and house recovery personnel, who needed lodging when the local hotels were not operating.”

CLIA’s Griffiths notes that “The cruise lines and their Caribbean ports-of-call have a close relationship with both benefiting from each other.” In addition to providing lodging in damaged ports and evacuating tourists and residents, the cruise lines had some 40 ships that transported 50,000 pounds of food and beverages and 155 pallets of medical supplies to various islands. CLIA’s website notes that its membership has contributed $30 million toward relief efforts.

Some ports got hit three times. First was Hurricane Irma; second was Hurricane Maria, and third was the economic fallout from no cruise ships and no passenger spending. Hudson Trident Services’ Edgerton notes that “Recovery of the port and terminals is only part of the story in terms of getting damaged ports-of-call back on the itineraries of cruise lines. Even if the port facilities are back to normal, cruise tourists want to take excursions away from the port to see whatever the islands have to offer.” If the cultural, historic or adventure attractions cannot be reached because roads are still blocked or cannot be enjoyed because they lack electricity, passengers would rather go to other ports-of-call.

Of the 48 cruise ports in the Caribbean, five were severely damaged, and the cruise lines are assessing what still needs to be done to get them back to normal. Key West was one of those and is now open again to cruise ship visits. CLIA’s website shows that cruise lines are continuing to reroute their vessels to avoid damaged ports. 

Some of the more common changes in itineraries were to switch from damaged St. Maarten to Antigua or St. Kitts, from St. Thomas to St. Lucia, from Grand Turk to Nassau, and from San Juan to Cap Cana (Dominican Republic) or Martinique. And some cruise lines just replaced ports with additional days at sea.

“Open for Business”

At this point the mantra of CLIA and the ports is that “The Caribbean Is Open for Business.” The number of cruise ships and passengers is almost back to normal in the U.S. territories. “For December, there were 75 cruise ship visits to San Juan and 70 to St. Thomas,” says Espino-Young. “Those are healthy numbers.” – MarEx 

Stephen L. Caldwell is a member of the National Maritime Security Advisory Committee and a frequent contributor to The Maritime Executive.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.