FREEPORT, Bahamas - Angela Dean peeked out from the galley and stepped gingerly into the dining room of the cruise ship where a frenzy of crew members - her co-workers - were stuffing box after box with food. It was almost midnight.
She clutched at her heart, right where her name tag was affixed to her chef's apron.
Her eyes grew wide then contracted, filling with tears that wouldn't, couldn't stop. She stood like that for minutes until the whites of her eyes were red, her eyelashes clumped together in a mash of mascara and salty wetness.
Dean is the only crew member on Royal Caribbean International's Mariner of the Seas that is from the Bahamas. And her co-workers were doing this for her countrymen, she thought.
"It's so hard," she told ship hotel director Keith Murphy, who put his arms around her shoulders and nudged her to a corner of the vast room where the others couldn't see her. She wiped tear after tear.
"I didn't expect all of this," she whispered to him.
All of this is was part of Royal Caribbean's relief effort for the Bahamas after the archipelago was bashed by Hurricane Dorian last Sunday.
The Category 5 storm made landfall in the Abaco islands, where some of Dean's family lives. Mariner of the Seas is one of several ships the cruise line is sending to Freeport in Grand Bahama Island to offload supplies and meals, like the 10,000 boxes Dean's co-workers prepped for two hours Friday night ahead of the ship's arrival just before dawn.
For Dean, the response was overwhelming.
"This effort, oh my God. This is the part that is killing me," she said as she watched the workers pack box after box with sandwiches, Jamaican jerk chicken, smoked turkey necks, Caribbean rice, chips, granola bars and fruits. "I know that everybody wants to help, they're helping. There are still good people in the world ... but when I came here and I saw the dining room, that just tore me to pieces."
The teams on Mariner started cooking the food at 3 p.m. Friday, even before the ship left Port Canaveral. By 10 p.m., when all of the 3,000-plus passengers onboard enjoying their regular vacations were out of the dining room, the loading began at a frantic pace. Crew members called out for more granola bars, dodging carts rolling in and out with turkey, chicken, oranges.
In the galley, employees worked assembly line style, passing down boxes until they filled up. In all, about 130 chefs cooked the meals and another 220 packaged them - many of them staff who volunteered.
"Manpower is not the problem," said executive chef Peter Howel from the galley as the night wore on Friday. "As soon as we told them we needed it, we had people coming at me from everywhere."
The volunteers would help unload at Freeport too, where Dean hoped she could see her sister, Lisa Duhaney, again for the first time since the storm. The family had miraculously made it through Dorian. They were all accounted for.
"I just need to touch them and to feel that they're still here," Dean said. "I know they're here but with all of this going on, it felt for me as through at any minute I could get a call saying somebody is gone."
When Mariner docked at 5 a.m. Saturday, Freeport looked as if it had been swallowed by darkness.
The port was illuminated only by the light of the 140,000-ton vessel, revealing storm ravaged buildings and downed trees. The sign for Fat Tuesday read "Fat uesda," instead.
From the 12th deck, cruisers Bruce and Christina Triolo looked on. "It's so dark," he said, peering over the balcony and then looking out to the horizon where lights were twinkling in an orderly row.
He pointed. They were cars. Evacuees lining up. About 260 - most of them children - would board Mariner later that day for drop off in Nassau, the ship's planned stop.
"We just got up early and said, 'We are going to go see this because we think it's a good thing, everyone needs to do something,'" said Christina Triolo. The couple from Satellite Beach had volunteered to help with unloading supplies off the ship, but the complex relief effort was being handled solely by the crew, who down below the passenger decks were working to line up the food trolleys.
Dean was down there too, pacing in a white polo with the word "Bahamian" embroidered on it.
"My heart is pounding," she said. Her sister would be waiting for her at the port later that morning. Dean hadn't slept all night.
She watched anxiously as the trolleys started to roll off the ship and the trucks started to roll in. Royal Caribbean volunteers, crew and members of the Bahamas' National Emergency Management Agency moved quickly, packing boxes and water bottles so high that one battered black pick-up truck sank low to the ground from the weight of it all. The driver pulled out of port slowly, a grin on his face.
At the other end of the dock, evacuees were streaming in and being led to the Royal Theater on the 4th deck, where they took up most of the seats. Many of them munched on bacon and eggs while "The Secret Life of Pets 2" played on a big screen behind the stage where, on most cruise nights, passengers watch live performances. Some parents dozed off. Most kids snuggled under beige blankets, eyes locked on the screen.
Not 4-year-old Angelique Bain, though.
Saturday was her birthday and she wanted every one she passed to know it. "It's my birthday!" she shouted from under a navy Royal Caribbean hat too big for her head, grape lollipop in hand. She and mom, Akela Moxey, were headed to Nassau to start over. Their house in the Pinder's Point settlement in Freeport had been flooded.
What could they do? Nothing, Moxey said. Look for work. Stay with friends. And sing Angelique "Happy Birthday" again and again and again.
Down at the dock, Dean was making a beeline for the gate into Freeport Harbour. Evacuees were streaming in and she had spotted her sister standing off to the side. They collided, hugging and crying.
"This is better than Christmas," Dean said, her arms around her sister. "This is better than Christmas - trust me."
For three days, Lisa and Greg Duhaney, along with their teenage daughters, had waited out the passage of Dorian at their one-story home in Freeport.
During the relentless hurricane, they lived in fear of the water. Would it rush in and swallow everything they knew? Could they keep it at bay or was nature stronger than their will to live?
They pulled their ladder, hammer and saw into the house in case they had to climb out through the roof. Their important documents were stowed in a plastic bag inside a purse, ready for a quick escape. And at night they took shifts staying up, periodically shining a light on the front porch steps to see if the ocean was threatening to wash in.
Dorian's assault lasted days. For 36 hours it did not move at all, stationary and deadly, thrashing the Bahamas again and again. "Please, just go, move," Lisa Duhaney prayed.
When it finally did, she realized they were the lucky ones - Duhaney's house stood and they'll get to stay in Freeport where she's a sanitation worker. But around her, some homes had only one wall left standing, furniture strewn across lawns. There were rumors that sharks washed in with the sea. And people were traumatized, she said, reliving the storm in their heads again and again.
Dean, meanwhile, had been in Mexico on the ship when Dorian hit. There, the sun shined bright and people went about their business in bikinis, the Bahamas and the hurricane a distant thought - if at all. She checked and re-checked her messages on WhatsApp, hoping to get word from Duhaney that everyone had made it out.
And when her texts flashed blue to show they had been read, she quickly pressed the key to call.
"When I heard her voice," Dean said, "it was the sweetest thing I ever heard."
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