Following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the vacation plans of New Orleans-bound travelers is just a small footnote compared with the vast loss of life and the drowning -- temporary or not -- of New Orleans' social, historical, and cultural patrimony. Nevertheless, here are the facts.
Initial assessments indicate varying damage to facilities at the Port of New Orleans (www.portno.com). At press time the port remained closed, though officials were working on a limited reopening to accommodate relief vessels. Two-way traffic by deep-draught vessels has already resumed on the lower Mississippi, though it will probably be weeks before cargo operations can resume. New Orleans is normally one of the nation's busiest container ports, with more than 800 cargo vessels arriving every month.
Reports indicate relatively minor damage to the port's Julia Street Cruise Terminal, but that's the least of the problems affecting the viability of cruise operations in the city. A statement issued by Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/227-6482; www.carnival.com), the leader in New Orleans cruises, said that given the extent of damage, the company "does not expect [its] ships to operate from New Orleans for an extended period of time."
One of the Carnival vessels that had operated from New Orleans, the Sensation, has been chartered for the next six months to the Military Sealift Command on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Two other Carnival vessels -- the Ecstasy, which operated out of Galveston, Texas, and the Holiday, which operated from Mobile, Alabama -- are also covered by the arrangement, which will remain in effect until early March. Ecstasy and Sensation, both moored in Galveston, were scheduled to begin boarding refugees from the Houston Astrodome on Tuesday, September 6, with priority given to the elderly and other people with special needs. Holiday is scheduled to begin boarding displaced persons in Mobile on Thursday. Additionally, FEMA has made arrangements to charter the cruise-ferry vessel Scotia Prince, which will soon transfer to the Gulf Coast and begin taking in evacuees.
Though the move provides beds for some 8,000 refugees, that number represents only a tiny fraction of those dispossessed by the storm. An estimated 240,000 have sought refuge in Texas alone, filling shelters, hotels, and private homes.
Guests booked on cancelled voyages aboard Holiday, Sensation, and Ecstasy may choose to re-book aboard any other Carnival ship and receive a $100 per-person shipboard credit.
Carnival's 2,974-passenger Conquest, which is normally based in New Orleans, will reposition to Galveston after it completes its current drydock on Sunday, September 11. She'll operate from Galveston indefinitely, sailing her scheduled seven-day itinerary to Montego Bay (Jamaica), Grand Cayman, and Cozumel.
At the conclusion of her FEMA charter, Holiday will resume service from the port of Mobile, which recovered quickly from hurricane damage. Resumption of service from New Orleans is not even yet on the table, though Carnival Corporation chairman Micky Arison was quick to pledge future deployment to the city.
"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of New Orleans and all of the Gulf Coast who have been so terribly devastated by this catastrophic event," said Arison in a prepared statement, noting that although there's no way to estimate a timetable at this juncture, "We have every intention of re-launching cruise service from the great city of New Orleans as soon as the infrastructure is in place, so that our ships may contribute to the economic recovery of the area."
No other major cruise lines have yet announced plans for vessels that had been scheduled for New Orleans operations. Norwegian Cruise Line (tel. 800/327-7030; www.ncl.com) had no ships scheduled from the port until October 16, when Norwegian Sun was to begin sailing weeklong western Caribbean cruises. Ditto for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line (tel. 800/398-9819; www.royalcaribbean.com), whose Grandeur of the Seas had been scheduled to sail from the city beginning December 3.
Among the small-ship lines sailing the Mississippi River, Delta Queen Steamboat Company (tel. 800/543-1949; www.deltaqueen.com), which is based in New Orleans, announced soon after the disaster that all of its employees were accounted for, though many lost their homes. According to company president Bruce Nierenberg, "All three of the Delta Queen steamboats, their passengers and our onboard crews, weathered the storm without any incident or damage. The Delta Queen and the Mississippi Queen were up on the Ohio River and the upper Mississippi and out of harms way well upriver from New Orleans. The American Queen had left New Orleans for a trip to Memphis several days before the storm hit the U.S."
At present, Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen are still scheduled to operate their regular fall and winter itineraries. However, all sailings of the vessel American Queen, which had been set to offer 3- and 4-night cruises round-trip from New Orleans through January 6, have been cancelled. Delta Queen is currently working with various government authorities to make the vessel available for relief efforts for the Gulf Coast region, especially greater New Orleans. The ship will begin offering cruises again on March 6, 2006. Passengers booked on the affected cruises will receive an automatic refund within the next sixty days. Alternatively, passengers choosing to rebook on a 2006 sailing may do so at 2005 prices, and will receive an additional $100-per-person onboard credit. To take advantage of this offer, booked passengers should call 800-543-1949.
Along with its parent company, Delaware North Companies, Delta Queen has established a foundation for the benefit of associates who have been affected by Hurricane Katrina. Passengers or travel agents who wish to contribute all or part of their refund to this effort should e-mail their names and phone numbers to DQSC1@dncinc.com. A company representative will call to process the donation.
Operations have thus far not been significantly affected at New Orleans-based river line, RiverBarge Excursions (tel. 888-462-2743, 504/450-8804 or 303/507-0110; www.riverbarge.com). The line's one vessel, the 198-passenger River Explorer, was in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, en route from Cincinnati to St. Louis along the Ohio and upper Mississippi rivers, when the storm hit. She was not scheduled to call in New Orleans until the conclusion of her Nov. 22-29 Thanksgiving cruise. Due to the mandatory evacuation of the New Orleans area, the company's reservations, sales and marketing, and operations departments have been temporarily relocated to Houston, Texas, where officials are arranging housing for company employees. Changes in future itineraries have yet to be announced.
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