Ports Close in U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as a Result of Hurricane Irene

Irene has become our first hurricane of the year, and questions then arise as to how it affects maritime travel and what ships and vessels must do as the storm approaches.

The United States Coast Guard issued a news release dated August 21, 2011 indicating that the Coast Guard’s San Juan Captain of the Port, Captain Drew Pearson, issued Port Condition ZULU, which means that he closed the ports to all incoming and outgoing vessels in the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. This is a protective and precautionary measure in anticipation of the approaching storm.

This raises interesting questions to whether vessels can stay in port, or must be sent out to sea to find another place of refuge. Our office has handled several cases involving vessels that have been lost at sea during a hurricane.

A well known case involved a passenger cruise ship, named the Fantome, which was operated by Windjammer Cruises. The Phantom was initially a large sailing type vessel that was converted to a passenger cruise ship by the Windjammer Company. Since it was intended to be a sailing vessel, it operated at very slow speeds after the conversion. Despite the slow moving vessel, the owners made a decision when Hurricane Mitch, which was a category 5 hurricane, was approaching toward the port in Honduras. The owners made a decision to take the vessel out to sea, and try to out maneuver Hurricane Mitch. This was an extremely reckless and dangerous decision. As a result, Hurricane Mitch, a powerful category 5 hurricane, destroyed the Fantome. The vessel was lost, and all members of the crew that were onboard the vessel were lost. The vessel was never found, nor were any of the crewmembers. This tragedy formed the basis of a book, named the Ship and the Storm. Our firm represented the survivors of many of the crewmembers who were lost at sea.

We also handled another case involving a cruise ship that was operating out of a port here in Florida many years ago, operating one day cruises to nowhere. It was a gambling vessel. As a hurricane was approaching, the port had an order that all vessels must leave port before the storm approached. This again is a precautionary measure for the safety of the port. Again, a decision was made for the vessel to leave port and try to seek safe refuge in the open seas. Unfortunately, this vessel was manned by an incompetent crew, and did not have the capabilities to out maneuver a storm, and never should have left port in the condition the vessel was at the time, including the incompetent and inexperienced crew that was manning the vessel at the time. In this particular case, the vessel owner argued that it was ordered to leave port, and this was their major defense in the negligence action against the vessel operator. The vessel was lost at sea, and several crewmembers were injured, and two of the crewmembers died.

Our wrongful death firm represented the surviving family member of one of the deceased crewmembers. In handling the litigation, we learned that although the port does implement rules requiring large vessels to leave the port, there are methods to apply for relief from this particular requirement. In particular, the vessel operator could have petitioned to stay, and show that the vessel was not in a seaworthy condition, and that the vessel was not adequately manned at the time, making it extremely dangerous for it to leave the port at the time.

The news release closing the ports in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, called Port Condition ZULU, states that there are sustained gale force winds from hurricane force storm predicted within 12 hours. The ports then remain closed to all incoming and outgoing vessel traffic until further instructions by the Captain of the Port.

The news release warns owners and operators of recreational vessels to follow small craft advisories issued from the National Weather Service, and to take the necessary safety measures to protect their vessels.

The approaching of a storm is a difficult and tricky situation for vessel owners and operators. Any decisions to take a vessel out to sea in order to out maneuver an approaching storm must be carefully made, considering the size of the vessel, the experience of the captain, and of course taking into consideration the unpredictability of the path of storms, which often do take sudden and unexpected turns. Over the years, the equipment used to forecast the tracking of storms, as well as our experiences with storms, have definitely improved. We are all now familiar with the cones that are created showing the possible areas a storm may travel to. Over the years, the strict forecasted path of the storm is no longer the focus. We now look at a much wider spread area, called The Cone of Influence. This is to take into account the unpredictability of the path of a severe storm. Many disasters at sea have occurred due to the focus on the narrow anticipated path of a storm, without taking into account the variability of the course of the storm.

We have also handled many cases involving injuries sustained by passengers on cruise ships who have decided to go to sea when there is a hurricane approaching instead of cancelling a particular cruise. The cruise ship companies have experienced captains and state of the art navigational equipment. Therefore, they are able to change the itinerary of the cruises, and travel on an itinerary as far away from the effects of the storm as possible. However, many times the cruise ship encounters extremely severe weather conditions when a storm does not follow its predicted course, resulting in injuries to passengers or crewmembers. We have handled many of these cases.

We will continue to keep a close eye on Hurricane Irene, and the affects that it will have on the maritime travel here in the state of Florida.

Our firm continues to act as safety advocates for those injured or harmed at sea.