- Susan Salisbury Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
With the Port of Palm Beach’s only cruise ship stationed in St. Croix to assist Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria victims, businesses at the Riviera Beach Marina say they, too, are victims of damage a hurricane did far away.
The businesses have noticed a significantdrop in customers, and wonder why the port’s only passenger ship was chosen. However, some say the passenger ship’s departure isn’t the only reason business is down at the marina just north of the port. Downtime before and after Irma and damage to nearby hotels have also contributed.
“We used to get a lot of customers from the boat, especially on the weekends,” said Pierre Msaed, general manager at Rafiki Tiki, the only restaurant at the marina’s event center. “We kept track of their luggage for them. We are trying our best. We have cut down on staff from full time to part-time until the marina comes back to life. Everybody was hurt financially from the hurricane, too.”
Rafiki Tiki, which opened in March, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and was looking forward to the winter tourism season’s start. “The first week of September was steady. Since then it has been a ghost town,” Msaed said this week.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency chartered the 1,900-passenger Grand Celebration ship to house the National Guard, Red Cross workers, first responders and others assisting in relief efforts in St. Thomas, which was battered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The ship left the Port of Palm Beach on Sept. 20, but then FEMA re-routed it to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands instead, cruise line spokeswoman Anita Mitchell said Friday.
“We are taking very good care of everyone who worked directly for us,” Mitchell said. “Our CEO wrestled with this for 24 hours, and said, ‘What is more important? Real lives and real people are more important.”
“We are covering our costs. Room and board and passengers are being covered and fuel, but the money they spend on the ship is not being covered,” Mitchell said
During the cruises from the port every other day, passengers spend an average of $400 on extras such as spa treatments, casino games, liquor upgrades and excursions. Passengers who booked cruises are receiving refunds.
“Ninety percent of passengers have been laudatory and really understand this is a humanitarian effort,” Mitchell said.
The ship is scheduled to return to the port no later than Dec. 23 and resume its two-night cruises to the Bahamas.
On Thursday, the port commission unanimously approved an amended agreement with Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line to cover the three months the Grand Celebration will not be at the port. The cruise line will pay the port $105,00o a month and the port will also save $150,000 due to reduced cruise-related costs such as security and water.
Port commissioners expressed concerns that the ship might stay in the islands longer than three months, but there’s no provision to extend the agreement that releases the cruise company from its regular performance minimums such as passenger counts and parking fees beyond that, said Deputy Port Director Paul Zielinski.
If the ship doesn’t return by December, it would be in breach of its contract with the port, Zielinski said.
“They are not at the Port of Palm Beach. It’s so disconcerting,” said Commissioner Wayne Richards, who said he wants to see a copy of the cruise line agreement with FEMA.
But it’s not just the cruise ship’s absence that is impacting local businesses.
The port was closed during Irma, which made landfalls in the Florida Keys and Southwest Florida Sept. 10. Despite sustaining roughly $1 million in damage to roofs, light poles and structures, the port re-opened the afternoon of Sept. 13 after the U.S. Coast Guard deemed it safe for marine traffic.
Prior to Irma impacting Palm Beach County, locals were preparing for the storm, so that meant lost revenues for the area’s businesses, too.
In addition, tourism is down as facilities such as Marriott’s Ocean Pointe on Singer Island are not at full capacity. The 682-unit timeshare resort in Palm Beach Shores had about 300 oceanfront units suffer water damage, and those are undergoing repairs, an employee said.
Mark Pollio, owner of Blue Water Boat and Jet Ski Rentals, said business has been slow, and he normally receives some business from cruise passengers, and from locals and hotel guests as well.
“The biggest thing was that because of Hurricane Irma the week before people were getting prepared, and the week after, they were cleaning up,” Pollio said.
While the cruise line is paying its 600 or so direct employees through December, it isn’t covering people who were employed through temporary help agencies.
Pamela Jones, a Lake Worth resident who worked as a ticket agent at the cruise line’s terminal, said she and and at least 65 other temporary employees lost their jobs because the cruise ship left.
“It was without notice. We had only worked one day since the hurricane,” Jones said.
“I don’t think FEMA would have done this knowing it would put people out of work. I think FEMA is unaware that people have been affected by this on the land side,” Jones said.
Capt. Reid Hansen of the Palm Beach Harbor Pilots said the cruise ship is a large portion of the pilots’ business, and pointed out the Grand Celebration is the port’s only passenger ship.
“To the pilots and our business it is a huge blow to our livelihood. It supposedly will be three months but it is scary to think that this will be FEMA’s go-to ship every time there is a storm,” Hansen said.
The Grand Celebration is the largest passenger ship ever based at the port.
Launched in January 2015, it replaced the Bahamas Celebration, which ran aground in Freeport on Halloween weekend in 2014. The 1,250-passenger Bahamas Celebration was sold for scrap metal. It had sailed from the port to Freeport since 2010 and carried about 350,000 passengers in its last year of operation.
In April, Bahamas Paradise Cruise line plans to add a second ship at the port.