FREEPORT, Bahamas – Hurricane Dorian's anger along the Bahamas was too gut-wrenching to ignore for workers and guests on the Celebrity Equinox cruise ship. Instead of continuing with their regularly scheduled itinerary for a seven-day Caribbean cruise, the massive vessel embarked on a new mission: helping survivors from the storm.
On Friday, the ship's kitchen staff prepared around 10,000 meals, while guests volunteered to plate and pack them. The ship was an active activity as the crew drew double duty. Even children – tasked with writing personal cards to cheer on the victims ̵
Celebrity Equinox, which left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Saturday morning to cross the Caribbean, was believed to be adding to the wharf in the Bahamas' capital Nassau for the tail end of the excursion. But the ship was diverted Friday to Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, which was partially destroyed by the storm.
"We have a small army of cooks that cook and a small marine of lifeboats and tugs that bring it ashore," said Rob Zeiger, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the parent company of Celebrity Cruises.
Zeiger said the ship has around 3,000 guests – and more than enough food to help whip up thousands of extra meals.
In a letter to the guests, the cruise line explained that it would compensate them for missing the intended port with credit on board. The decision to extend the aid, they added, was rooted in a deeper purpose.
"The Bahamas has a special place in our hearts as a valued place for our guests, and home to more than 500 of our colleagues," the letter said. "Now, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian, we're rolling up our sleeves to help our friends."
Guests talking to NBC News said they understood the decision to redirect and wished they could do more.
"If we can go and provide meals, that's the least we can do," said Jessica Russell of Fort Worth, Texas.
"Sure it is great to be in the Bahamas, but what we do for these people – their whole lives, everything they have ever had is gone," she added.
Dorian was a Category 5 hurricane with 185 mph winds – one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever recorded – when it landed Sunday in the Northern Bahamas. The death toll has grown to at least 30 people with thousands listed as missing, and officials from the archipelago, normally a magnet for tourists, have asked for humanitarian relief for their hardest hit islands.
Other cruise operators, including The Walt Disney Co. and Carnival Corp., said they will donate money or supplies as part of their efforts and assistance.
Celebrity Cruises has operated in the Caribbean for nearly 30 years and Royal Caribbean for about 50 years, Zeiger said, and some of their employees have been personally touched.
A rotation of the company's cruise ship will pass through Freeport to help provide meals and other items, including lawn chairs for sleeping, pillows, bedding, towels and medical supplies. Guests and crew also donated at least 10 boxes of clothing that will be distributed through charities already on the ground.
For food, Celebrity Equinox provided additional resources during a previous port stoppage, and was equipped with enough for eight to 10 days, said Alexander Capello, an executive chef.
The ship had more than 5400 kilos of food – to make everything from cold sandwiches to hot dishes, such as chicken, rice and beans. In addition, more than 300,000 bottles of water were distributed by the cruise operator's ship. Over the next few days, the company is looking to establish a field kitchen on land to continue offering meals.
This is not the first time Celebrity Cruises is taking a humanitarian case course: I In 2010, when the airspace was closed due to the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, one of the ships helped ferry 2,000 British tourists stranded in Spain.
After Hurricane Dorian, Zeiger said, the cruise line teamed up with the Bahamian government to identify evacuees who would go from Freeport to Nassau.
"In a disaster, you sew together a response system," he added. "And the response around has been fantastic."
Mariana Henninger reported from Freeport, and Erik Ortiz from New York.