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Will El Faro's Replacement Sail Into Hurricane Matthew?

The ship's operator says the captain will decide whether to stay or go.
The Isla Bella arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3.
The Isla Bella arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Oct. 3.Charles White

A year after the cargo ship El Faro sank in a monster storm, the vessel built to replace it is poised to set off on the same route as Hurricane Matthew approaches with the possibility of 20-foot waves.

A spokesperson for Tote Marine, which operates the Isla Bella, said it will be up to the captain to decide whether the ship leaves port in Puerto Rico and head back to Jacksonville, Florida, a three-day journey.

“Our Captains have control and authority to alter course for any purpose, weather, crew illness, or to assist another ship at sea. Our crews are trained to deal with unfolding weather situations and are prepared to respond to emerging situations while at sea," the company said in a statement.

A second ship operated by Tote, the Perla del Caribe, left Jacksonville late Tuesday afternoon for Puerto Rico, following the same route the Isla Bella took when it headed out of Florida on Oct. 1.

Tote said in its statement that the Coast Guard had advised large commercial vessels at various Florida ports to depart.

"TOTE Services has great confidence in its highly experienced officers and they are currently adjusting their sailing schedules accordingly," the company said.

A lawyer representing the families of some victims of the El Faro disaster said the company should be exercising every precaution.

"When families come to us for justice, it often means they want to make sure the tragedy that took their loved one doesn’t happen to someone else," attorney Jason Itkin said. "If Tote is sending more mariners into the path of a hurricane on the anniversary of the El Faro disaster, it’s clear Tote has not learned its lesson yet.”

Thirty-three people were lost when Hurricane Joaquin slammed into the aging El Faro after it left Puerto Rico for Jacksonville last Sept. 30. Just before the ship transmitted distress signals, the captain reported it was flooding, listing 15 degrees and had lost propulsion.

The ship's data recorder was retrieved from the ocean floor two months ago, and investigators are in the process of analyzing it for clues.

When the doomed vessel left, Joaquin was a tropical storm, but it soon reached Category 4 hurricane status.

Matthew is already a Category 4 hurricane.

Dr. Ryan Maue of told NBC News that wave heights along the Isla Bella and Perla del Caribe's expected routes should be fairly benign with forecast maps showing 6-foot to 8-foot seas through Wednesday.

However, by Thursday morning wave heights could be approaching 20 feet. And the forecast only gets worse from there, with the potential for wave heights close to 50 feet near Florida by the end of the week.