Around the same time that Harvey slammed into the Texas coast as a Category 4 hurricane on Friday, August 25, at 10 p.m., Royal Caribbean’s customer service office was closing, and Nikki McIntosh was trying to squeeze in one final phone call.
She and her family were slated to board an airplane the following morning to fly to Houston and then drive down to the Port of Galveston to catch a cruise ship to Mexico, which was supposed to leave on August 27. But with catastrophic flooding in the forecast for the entire Texas coast, it seemed obvious to McIntosh that this wasn’t the time to head there for a vacation. The Port of Galveston, in fact, had already closed at midday on August 25 — yet still, Royal Caribbean had issued no cancellation for the cruise.
“I really did not want to get on the plane,” McIntosh said. “On the 25th I called, and I just kept calling, and I called right up until the office closed at 10 p.m. But they were still saying it was a go — to which I said, ‘I’m nervous about flying my kids into the area. This doesn’t look good.’
“They told me the cruise is leaving, and if you don’t make it, there’s no refund.”
McIntosh and her husband, who are both teachers from Ottawa, Canada, had saved up for the $10,000 cruise for years, and spent more than $3,000 on flights. At risk of throwing away all that money, they decided to trust the judgment of the cruise line — judgment they would soon learn was completely off the wall, leaving them trapped in a Houston hotel room with little access to food and surrounded by floodwaters for days.
McIntosh has now filed a federal lawsuit against Royal Caribbean for the immense financial strain the fiasco placed on her and her family — and how the cruise line’s total lack of foresight placed her family, including two kids ages six and three, directly in harm’s way. It was not until August 27 at 3 p.m. — 18 hours after first responders and civilians alike began rescuing people in boats and helicopters — that Royal Caribbean finally called off the cruise and told passengers they would get a refund.
McIntosh’s attorney, Michael Winkleman, said the passengers were essentially “strong-armed into sailing,” and that he has already heard from roughly 100 passengers with similarly terrible experiences who want to join the lawsuit. He is seeking class-action status.
“[Harvey] doesn’t compare to anything, even the worst snow storm, that I have been through — and there’s been some doozies in Ottawa,” McIntosh said. “But never in my life have I been concerned about where my next meal is coming from. We started stockpiling food. We were seeing the last bit of water removed from the shelves. What we experienced, it was right out of a movie. On top of that, the company’s response, instead of helping, they were adding stress.”
Royal Caribbean declined to comment.
On August 25, other cruise lines, such as Carnival, were already re-routing cruise ships that were supposed to pull into Galveston in anticipation of Harvey — which was at that point forecast to dump about two feet of rain on the Houston area. But, remarkably, Royal Caribbean’s chief meteorologist was telling would-be passengers on Twitter that the weather was “looking favorable” in response to their concerns about whether they should still come to Galveston on August 27.
McIntosh and her family had already started the long trip. On August 26, they flew from Ottawa to Dallas, concerned that Houston’s airports might unexpectedly close, and rented cars to drive to the Bayou City. They rolled into town just as the heavy rains were starting — and just as a tornado warning was issued. Unsure what Texans do in this scenario, McIntosh tried to see if other cars with Texas plates were pulling over or if they should just gun it for the hotel. After hoping for the best and arriving safely, they tuned in to coverage of the storm. Floodwaters were accumulating at astounding rates, and, just after 10 p.m., Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo held an urgent press conference telling people to get off the roads and stay inside.
But, at 10:15, Royal Caribbean had a different message for its passengers: The cruise was still on — but would instead depart on Monday instead of Sunday. Its weather team apparently thought Harvey would be over with by then.
Winkleman said this is not the first time Royal Caribbean has seriously misjudged a storm. He said he represented about 400 passengers in a similar class-action lawsuit after a Royal Caribbean cruise took off from New Jersey in February 2016 and headed toward the Bahamas — despite a massive storm in the Atlantic headed toward the Carolinas. The ship sailed straight into 120-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot waves, leading the captain to order passengers to stay inside their rooms for safety.
“It was a gamble — that’s exactly what they did with the Anthem of the Seas cruise in February 2016, when they tried to outrun another huge storm,” Winkleman said. “There’s a tremendous parallel between those two cruises, which is basically Royal Caribbean gambling with its passengers’ lives.”
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All day on Sunday, August 27, before Royal Caribbean finally cancelled the cruise, McIntosh and her husband spent hours hashing out how they could possibly get to the Port of Galveston safely. They studied maps on DriveTexas.org and scoured social media for tips from locals on what roads were safe, repeatedly coming up empty-handed. They talked to the hotel staff — how long would the food last? Just until that Tuesday, they were told — even though Houston airports were closed indefinitely.
She and her husband went looking for meals at a gas station a couple of blocks away, where they stocked up on power bars, and then at the first fast-food restaurant to open since the worst of Harvey hit, where they waited for three hours in line for fried chicken. They even started feeling bad about being vacationers taking up food supply from Houstonians who had just lost homes.
They had essentially taken a plane to Texas just to experience the worst natural disaster in U.S. history — and even though Royal Caribbean refunded the cost of the cruise they didn’t take, the company has refused to reimburse the McIntosh family “even one red cent” of the costs for the flights, rental cars, hotel or other expenditures tied to riding out a catastrophic flood on a whim, McIntosh said.
“I just cannot believe they made the bad choice to get us down there, but that once they made that mistake, instead of fixing it, or doing anything, they made it worse,” McIntosh said. “I just can’t believe that we were there, for one — but then they kept saying ‘sorry for the inconvenience.’ This was more than an inconvenience. They trapped people, and once the people were trapped, they did not help them.”