But for some, the relief was cut short before the ship left the dock.
“Please, all passengers that don’t have U.S. visa, please proceed to disembark,” a crew member announced through the ship’s intercom system.
A video of the announcement was captured by a WSVN 7News reporter and posted to Twitter.
The news stunned passengers, who are normally allowed to travel from the Bahamas to the United States with just a passport and a copy of their criminal record.
Bahamians — some with babies in their arms — streamed off the ship shortly after. One person on board said she saw more than 100 people walk off the ship after the announcement.
Dorian took hold of the Caribbean islands on Sunday and Monday as a Category 5 storm. Devastating winds and torrential rain wiped out entire neighbourhoods and decimated the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama.
At least 44 people have been reported dead, though officials are certain the number will grow as search and rescue crews try to access hard-hit areas.
With food and water supplies waning in the wake of the storm, many have opted to abandon the islands. The evacuations ramped up over the weekend, with hundreds lining up outside the Freeport harbour.
Those on board the ship Sunday told WSVN that it was U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who made the call, but CBP pointed the finger at the ferry operator, Balearia Caribbean.
In a statement, the federal agency said it was notified of the ship’s plans and “requested that the operator of the vessel co-ordinate with U.S. and Bahamian government officials.”
That didn’t happen, according to CBP.
Balearia Caribbean ultimately “made a business decision” to take the evacuees off the boat before setting sail for Florida, said CBP spokesperson Michael Silva.
“I think they raised their expectations without fulfilling the requirements,” the officer told WSVN. “If they had done that with us and worked with us, we would’ve been there to facilitate that process. However, they didn’t.”
Even if those evacuees without a U.S. visa stayed aboard, CBP officials said they would have “worked within U.S. laws and protocols” to “determine their admissibility and process them accordingly.”
Stephen Silvestri, acting port director for CBP at Port Everglades, stressed that the order to disembark did not come from American officials.
“They were not ordered off the boat by any U.S. government entity.”
Silva added: “It’s really heartbreaking because these people have suffered enough.”
Federal regulations do not require residents of the Bahamas to have a visa if they are flying into the U.S. so long as other criteria are met, including having no criminal record and showing a valid passport or travel documents.
Balearia Caribbean did not respond to a Global News request for comment by the time of publication.
WATCH: Cruise line initiates Hurricane Dorian relief effort in Bahamas
CBP acting commissioner Mark Morgan reiterated the standing requirements for documentation mere hours before the chaos on Balearia on Sunday.
“Those evacuating from the Bahamas who are U.S. citizens, Lawful Permanent Residents, and those with proper documentation to enter the U.S. are being processed at U.S. Ports of Entry,” he wrote on Twitter.
“No visa document requirements have changed.”
One day earlier, CBP said its officers processed nearly 1,500 evacuees from the Bahamas in Palm Beach, Fla.
The evacuees were brought to the U.S. on the Grand Celebration cruise ship, which has also transported first responders and volunteers to and from the islands.
The CPB said all on board had valid documentation and were admitted to the country.
WATCH: Hurricane Dorian — Relief efforts ramp up amid fear of ‘staggering’ death toll
The agency added that agents “worked closely” with the cruise line to facilitate its arrival in the U.S.
“CBP continue to process the arrivals of passengers evacuating from the Bahamas according to established policies and procedures — as demonstrated by the nearly 1,500 Hurricane Dorian survivors who arrived at Port of Palm Beach, Fla., aboard a cruise ship on Saturday and were processed without incident,” a statement posted to Twitter reads.
The situation on the Balearia was yet another setback for Bahamians who have been left to pick up the pieces after Dorian.
Search and rescue efforts are ongoing as thousands remain missing. The full scope of the storm’s wrath is still not fully conceivable as authorities continue to assess the widespread damage.
— With files from Reuters
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