Storm Victims Ready for This Cruise to End
Some are living on the Ecstasy. Some are on the Sensation. Some are on the Holiday. But most cannot go home.
About 5,000 New Orleans residents -- including firefighters, police officers and other emergency personnel -- are nearing two months of post-Hurricane Katrina life aboard two Carnival Cruise Lines ships on the Mississippi River here. In the port of Pascagoula, Miss., about 1,800 displaced Mississippians and a small number of federal workers are living aboard a third Carnival-owned ship, the Holiday.
The vessels were leased for $236 million in a six-month deal brokered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in September.
For many aboard here, even as they compliment the staff for their politeness and small touches such as delivering ice to staterooms every evening, the charms of shipboard life have worn off.
“I took a cruise to Alaska once and that was great, but of course this isn’t a cruise to Alaska,” said Jim Bialas, 64, whose New Orleans home was heavily damaged in the storm, which destroyed his furniture reupholstery business in St. Bernard Parish.
Nevertheless, he said, the Sensation had been a “godsend” for him and his wife, Donna, 60, a third-grade teacher at the Resurrection of Our Lord school. After they rode out the first weeks after the storm with friends and relatives in Atlanta; Meridian, Miss.; and Slidell, La., he said, the small stateroom on the ship allowed them to at least come back to New Orleans to mull how to rebuild their lives.
Bialas was carrying an armload of clothes at the dock, making his way past a security guard to board the Sensation. He and Donna were able to settle in on the boat because their son, Jon, who also is living aboard, is a New Orleans firefighter.
There are three square meals a day -- plenty of food, buffet-style, but “no fancy desserts and no chilled shrimp,” as a FEMA spokesman, James McIntyre, put it. The bars are closed. No alcohol is served, nor is it permitted aboard, not officially anyway.
The satellite television works, and there is an occasional movie, such as “As Good as It Gets,” “Seabiscuit” and “The Aviator.” Perhaps a bit oddly, the theme song from “Titanic” occasionally wafts softly over the Muzak system. The gym is open along with one of the pools.
But there are none of the other entertainments usually found on a cruise, such as casinos and live music.
Some emergency personnel have brought spouses and children -- even parents and grandparents -- aboard. But others have kept their families away from the devastation, sharing quarters and enduring loneliness with work, sleep and an occasional bingo game.
“At first there was a lot of adrenaline,” said C.J. Daroyle, a city police officer whose wife and two young children are living with an aunt near Macon, Ga. “There was a crisis to respond to, and you were grateful for clean sheets and a place to rest your head. But every day that room” -- on the Ecstasy -- “just feels smaller and smaller.”
Another police officer aboard the Ecstasy said the ship, which has weekly maid and linen service, was clean. “It’s cleaner than my house is right now,” said the officer, whose home was damaged by floodwaters.
The ships normally take tourists on jaunts to the Caribbean and Mexico, but Carnival agreed to send the vessels to New Orleans after Katrina hit in late August and signed a deal with the federal government to provide emergency housing.
The government is expected to pay about $192 million over six months for about 2,050 rooms aboard the ships, including meals, plus reimbursement for up to $44 million for fuel, waste removal and other expenses. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, said it was less than what the government would pay for hotel rooms or other accommodations for workers and their families in housing-scarce New Orleans.
FEMA has said the cost of housing an individual aboard a ship is about $168 a day. In a statement, the agency said that rooms in hotels that were open in New Orleans averaged more than $190 a day, without meals.
As of early last week, the ships were occupied at about 97% of capacity, FEMA said.
Critics of the arrangement say there are cheaper options. Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a Los Angeles Democrat, says it appears to be “lucrative for Carnival but exceptionally expensive for the taxpayer.”
Bob Dickinson, the president and chief executive of Carnival, said the Miami company was not making excessive profits in the deal. On Oct. 28, the Senate unanimously passed a measure to require an investigation into the arrangement.
Waxman contends that the government could buy or build permanent homes for what it will pay for accommodations on the three ships, but many people on board say the criticism is beside the point, at least for now: There are no houses to live in.
“I’m one of the guys who stood on his roof for two days,” said Eric Biennemy, 35, a government mechanic who is living aboard the Scotia Prince, a fourth ship housing storm victims. The old ferry was decommissioned from its original route carrying vacationers between Maine and Nova Scotia.
“So I suppose you could say this is a step up,” Biennemy, whose family is in Texas, said one misty recent evening as he prepared to launch into the buffet. “My house is destroyed. There’s nowhere else to live right now.”
Verhovek was recently on assignment in New Orleans.