Hundreds of anxious South Floridians swarmed the Port Everglades cruise terminal Tuesday morning to welcome a cruise ship transformed into a relief vessel: Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas.
Its storm-weary cargo: nearly 4,000 evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands fleeing the ravages of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
The ship represented a new start for some, reunification for others after the one-two punch of hurricanes smashed the Caribbean with devastating force last month, leaving millions without power, homes or jobs.
Friends and family members chanted and sang, clutched balloons and flowers — a bright splash of cheer punctuating a dismal couple of weeks.
Maria Luisa De Jesus-Hoover, of Miami, waved a handmade sign drawn in red marker and covered in hearts… welcoming her family.
“I’m waiting for my 95-year-old grandmother, my 80-year-old aunt and my 24-year-old niece,” she said.
De Jesus-Hoover said her grandmother’s town in Puerto Rico was flooded by a river that overflowed its banks. This mercy ship voyage was her first time riding on a boat.
“She’s our family matriarch,” said De Jesus-Hoover, tearing up. “I’m in emotional overload right now.”
Dr. Nivea Ribas waved a Puerto Rican flag while waiting to pick up her 85-year-old mom, Ada. Ribas was born and raised on the island before setting up her neurology practice in Miami Lakes 23 years ago.
Ribas says she was in shock when she saw Hurricane Maria’s track shift.
“It was a bulls-eye. Completely diagonal through the island — from Guayama to Vega Baja.”
Ribas’ hometown — Utuado — lies in the mountainous center of the island. Maria triggered mudslides that inundated homes and covered roads. News reports said it looked like chocolate.
Ribas still hasn’t been able to contact some family members there.
“I’ve been unable to sleep 10 days now,” she said. “It’s so painful there’s no words to describe.”
There were tourists on the ship too. Juan Ramirez, from Kentucky, was stranded in Puerto Rico. He was in a hurry to leave the terminal.
“I want to eat food, man! Real food!” Ramirez said. “We were really struggling — eating once a day if we could. It’s bad. It’s very bad over there.”
Shawna Gentle was vacationing in St. Thomas from Guyana. She came to Fort Lauderdale aboard the mercy ship so she could catch a flight home.
“It was great when I got there, until the hurricane hit,” she said. “Mind you, I’ve never experienced anything like that before in my life. Two hurricanes -- one after the other -- it was quite an experience."
Maritza Evans, of Pembroke Pines, waited to pick up her mom, Gloria Fredericks, who lives in St. Croix. Her island was caught by really bad timing, Evans said.
“Irma went through St. Thomas, so St. Croix sent a lot of things that they needed,” Evans said. “When Maria came, within 24 hours it went from a [category] 1 to a 5. We didn’t have enough time in St. Croix to prepare.”
Standing with his suitcase away from the crowd, Nelson Perez, 78, of Puerto Rico, waited to get picked up by his son, who lives in Broward County. He said Maria passed right over him.
“It sounded like a thousand demons,” he said.
Perez, a retired industrial engineer, thinks it’ll take a long time before people can make a living again in some parts of Puerto Rico.
“When you plant a coffee tree, it takes five years to produce coffee,” he said. “We lost them, so now we have to replant them and wait five more years.”
Perez thinks it’s a wait thousands of Puerto Ricans might not be able to make.
“If they don’t get jobs over there so they can survive,” he said, “they’ll have to leave the island.”