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After Hurricane Dorian, Celebrity cruise ship in Bahamas reroutes to deliver food, aid

The Celebrity Equinox's kitchen staff is preparing 10,000 meals, with guests even pitching in to help in the aftermath of the hurricane.
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FREEPORT, Bahamas — Hurricane Dorian's wrath along the Bahamas was too gut-wrenching to ignore for workers and guests on the cruise ship the Celebrity Equinox. Instead of continuing on their regularly scheduled itinerary for a seven-day Caribbean cruise, the massive vessel set sail on a new mission: helping survivors of the storm.

On Friday, the ship's kitchen staff prepared some 10,000 meals, while guests volunteered to plate and pack them. The ship was a hive of activity as the crew pulled double-duty. Even children — tasked with writing personalized cards to cheer up the victims — pitched in.

Image: Celebrity Equinox kitchen staff
Celebrity Equinox kitchen staff work overtime to prepare over 10,000 meals that will be brought to people in need in Freeport, Bahamas. The cruise ship has been rerouted from Nassau to provide relief to the island hit by Hurricane Dorian.Mariana Henninger / NBC News

The Celebrity Equinox, which left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday morning to crisscross the Caribbean, was supposed to dock at the Bahamas' capital of Nassau for the tail end of its excursion. But the ship was diverted Friday to Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, which was partially destroyed by the storm.

"We have a little army of cooks making food and a little navy of life boats and tug boats bringing it ashore," said Rob Zeiger, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the parent company of Celebrity Cruises.

Zeiger said the ship has about 3,000 guests — and more than enough food to help whip up thousands of extra meals.

Image: Celebrity Equinox
Guests of the Celebrity Equinox help to pack meals to be delivered to survivors of Hurricane Dorian in Freeport, Bahamas.Mariana Henninger / NBC News

In a letter to guests, the cruise line explained that it would compensate them for missing the intended port with an onboard credit. The decision to extend aid, they added, was rooted in a deeper purpose.

"The Bahamas hold a special place in our hearts as a treasured place for our guests, and home to more than 500 of our colleagues," the letter said. "Now, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, we are rolling up our sleeves to help our friends."

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Guests who spoke with NBC News said they understood the decision to reroute and wished they could do more.

"If we can go and give meals, that's the least that we can do," said Jessica Russell, of Fort Worth, Texas.

"Surely it's great to be in the Bahamas, but what we're doing for these people — their whole lives, everything they've ever had is gone," she added.

Dorian was a Category 5 hurricane with 185 mph winds — one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever recorded — when it made landfall Sunday in the northern Bahamas. The death toll has grown to at least 30 people with thousands listed as missing, and officials from the archipelago, normally a magnet for tourists, have asked for humanitarian relief for their hardest-hit islands.

Other cruise operators, including The Walt Disney Co. and Carnival Corp., said they will donate money or supplies as part of the relief and recovery efforts.

Celebrity Cruises has been operating in the Caribbean for almost 30 years and Royal Caribbean for about 50 years, Zeiger said, and some of their employees have been personally affected.

A rotation of the company's cruise ships will be passing through Freeport to help provide meals and other items, including lawn chairs for sleeping, pillows, bedding, towels and medical supplies. Guests and crews also donated at least 10 boxes of clothing that will be distributed with the help of charities already on the ground.

For food, the Celebrity Equinox acquired more resources during a previous port stop, and was stocked with enough for eight to 10 days, said Alexander Capello, an executive chef.

The ship was carrying more than 5,400 pounds of food — to make everything from cold cut sandwiches to hot dishes, such as chicken, rice and beans. In addition, more than 300,000 bottles of water were being handed out by the cruise operator's ships. In the coming days, the company is looking to establish a field kitchen on land to continue providing meals.

Image: Celebrity Equinox
Crew of the Celebrity Equinox loads bottled water onto a tug boat for distribution in Freeport, Bahamas, on Sept. 5, 2019Mariana Henninger / NBC News

This isn't the first time Celebrity Cruises has diverted course for a humanitarian cause: In 2010, when airspace was closed because of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, one of its ships helped to ferry 2,000 British tourists stranded in Spain.

Following Hurricane Dorian, Zeiger said, the cruise line is working with the Bahamian government to identify evacuees who want to go from Freeport to Nassau.

"In a disaster, you stitch together a response system," he added. "And the response all around has been amazing."

Mariana Henninger reported from Freeport, and Erik Ortiz from New York.