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Hurricane Katrina

Cruise passengers docked, but adrift

Passengers find themselves in Tampa trying to get home and to get word of loved ones.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published August 31, 2005



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TAMPA - Erin Williams stood, silent and almost motionless, at the Port of Tampa on Tuesday morning, her arms crossed, tears welling up in her eyes.

A resident of Biloxi, Miss., Williams hadn't heard from a single family member since before Hurricane Katrina hit.

Being stuck at sea on a cruise ship, circling the Gulf of Mexico, certainly didn't help.

Williams was one of 1,550 passengers who left Mobile, Ala., Thursday on Carnival Cruise Lines' Holiday for a four-day voyage to Cozumel, Mexico. The ship was supposed to return to Mobile on Monday, but the storm had shut down the port there.

Carnival Cruise Lines spokeswoman Jennifer De la Cruz said diverting to Tampa was the next best option.

"We looked for a port along the Gulf Coast with a berth available that was as close as we could get with consideration of the people that were on board," she said.

Now that she was off the ship, Williams had to get home. She had to get word about her relatives. Joel Moody, who took the cruise with Williams, said they planned on renting a car in Tampa and driving to Biloxi.

Emotions weren't as high for the Atwater and Caskey families. They knew exactly where to find all their relatives and their neighbors.

When word came that Katrina was heading for the Mobile area, everyone Rodney and Donna Atwater and Jessie and La Nette Caskey left behind banded together and took refuge in Florida.

All together, there were 20 people from their neighborhood who drove to Lake City, said Jenny Caskey, who waited at the Port of Tampa to pick up her parents. Ending up in Lake City, just more than 21/2 hours from where her parents were to dock, "was just luck," she said.

"That's where we could find hotels," Jenny Caskey said.

Rodney Atwater couldn't be happier to see Jenny Caskey and his son Allen Atwater waiting to take them home.

"There's one thing I've learned on this cruise," Rodney Atwater said. "Do not get on another cruise if there's a tropical storm coming across the tip of Florida, no matter what the forecasters said."

Allan Alderman of Pensacola said he saw tensions run high on board the ship as the cruise line tried to make adjustments to accommodate people because of the storm. The $7-a-minute charge to use the satellite phone on the ship was suspended. Passengers received a $150 refund for ship services that many planned to use toward alternate transportation back to Mobile.

Kathy Weisensee turned 37 on Monday, the day Katrina hit near her home of Manderville, La., just north of New Orleans. But instead of returning to Mobile to head home and celebrate, she was left sitting on a sidewalk in Tampa.

Weisensee and her friend Sandy Bergeron said the trip was supposed to be a girls-only outing. They each left their children with their husbands.

"I used to live north of the lake," Bergeron said. "I might have a lakefront home now. My home might even be in the lake."

Anxiety set in Sunday night, Weisensee said, when passengers had no clue where they were.

"We asked the captain and he said, "You're at sea. In the Gulf of Mexico, '" she said.

She later learned they were near the north tip of Cuba.

The women said they waited in line for an hour to use one of six computers and a handful of laptops on the ship to read an e-mail from their family that said everyone was okay. Feeling a bit more relaxed, they went down to the bar, where Bergeron bought Weisensee a mango daiquiri for her birthday.

Weisensee planned to fly to Birmingham, Ala., to meet up with family. Bergeron said she'd hop a plane to Baton Rouge, La., where her husband and children were staying with her son on the campus of Louisiana State University.

De la Cruz, Carnival's spokeswoman, said that 1,280 passengers disembarked from the Holiday on Tuesday. The remaining passengers have until noon today to get off.

De la Cruz said that Holiday's home port is in Mobile. The ship planned to make its way back there today, with hopes that when it reached Mobile, the port there would be open.

Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 31, 2005, 01:23:10]


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