A US-bound ferry evacuating hundreds of Hurricane Dorian survivors from Grand Bahama announced that only Bahamians with US visas could depart the island — a contradiction of US policy that resulted in 119 people, including children, getting off the ship.
Thousands lined up for hours to get on the ferry in the first place, one of the few ways to leave the ravaged island. The official death toll from the hurricane, which decimated the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane, is currently at 45, but is expected to rise dramatically.
After passengers had boarded the Baleària Caribbean ferry in Freeport, an announcement was made that all those without a US visa must disembark.
"Please, all passengers that don’t have US visa, please proceed to disembark," said a ferry staffer, in a video filmed by Brian Entin, a reporter for Miami's WSVN 7 News.
According to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) guidelines, Bahamian citizens traveling from the Bahamas do not usually require a US visa as long as they have a clean police record and are only planning to visit for a short time. Although the website says this applies to visitors "traveling on a flight" from the Bahamas to the US, a CBP spokesperson clarified the policy applies to both sea and air travel.
Baleària Caribbean runs ferries between Grand Bahama and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, usually departing four or five times weekly for the two-and-a-half-hour journey.
In a statement, the company told BuzzFeed News it was able to reestablish trips from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini and Grand Bahama since Friday and, in three days, transported 1,750 people including residents from the Bahamas, tourists, and emergency personnel. The company has also transported supplies to the island.
Officials with Baleàra Caribbean also said that on Sunday, the company boarded the 119 passengers under their understanding that "they could travel without visas and, later, the ship received indications that to land in the USA they would need authorization from the immigration offices in Nassau," the capital of the Bahamas.
The company did not state who notified it about the visa requirement.
"Baleàra laments the inconvenience that was incurred by the 119 passengers, residents of the Bahamas, that yesterday (Sunday, Sept. 8) could not travel to Freeport and Fort Lauderdale," the company said.
The company has told travelers of the documents that will be needed to travel, in coordination with CBP, but it did not state what those were.
A passenger onboard said the ferry staff told him they'd been contacted by US Customs and Border Protection with the demand that passengers must have a visa.
"They just got a call from CBP, and CBP told them that everyone that doesn’t have a US visa and is traveling on police record has to come off," Renard Oliver, a passenger aboard the ferry, told WSVN.
Oliver was holding his baby girl in his arms as he explained that he needed to get off the ship because he was traveling with his Bahamian passport and a police record.
“At the last minute like this it’s kind of disappointing," he told WSVN. "It’s hurtful, because I’m watching my daughters cry."
The 119 evacuees got off the ship after the announcement and were left on Grand Bahama island without electricity or running water.
However, CBP denied that they were to blame for the confusion on the Baleària Caribbean ferry.
A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in a statement it "was notified of a vessel preparing to embark an unknown number of passengers in Freeport and requested that the operator of the vessel coordinate with U.S. and Bahamian government officials in Nassau before departing The Bahamas."
It did not clarify if it had been notified of the vessel's planned departure in advance, but seemed to criticize the company's planning of the ferry trip.
The spokesperson said that CBP "requires transparent communication and planning for adequate resources to receive any arrivals."
In an interview with WSVN, CBP Florida officers blamed Baleària Caribbean for not adequately coordinating with the US.
"I think they raised their [passenger] expectations without fulfilling the requirements, that if they had done that with us and worked with us, we would have been there to facilitate that process. However they didn't," said an officer.
"If those folks did stay on the boat and arrived, we would have processed them," added another CBP officer. "They were not ordered off the boat by any US government entity."
However, when asked about the issue with the ferry passengers on Monday and whether the US should do more to help Hurricane Dorian survivors, President Trump added further confusion by indicating that he believed evacuees fleeing the humanitarian disaster included "very bad people."
"We have to be very careful," said Trump. "Everyone needs totally proper documentation.... I don't want to allow people who weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas to come into the United States, including some very bad people."
He added that he was trying to keep out "very bad people and some very bad gang members and some very, very bad drug dealers" that weren't supposed to be in the Bahamas and then coming into the United States.
There is no indication that this was an issue on Sunday's ferry or has been an issue since Dorian hit. CBP referred questions to the White House, which did not respond to requests for further clarification.
On the CBP website about the documents citizens from the Bahamas are required to have when attempting to enter the US, a section about hurricanes appears in bold font.
"Travelers should be aware that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Preclearance Station hours of operation may change with short notice, especially in emergency situations (such as hurricane watches)," it reads. "Bahamians whose individual hurricane plans include travel to the United States should consider applying for U.S. visas well in advance."
On Saturday, a cruise ship organized by Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line arrived at Palm Beach, Florida, with 1,500 hurricane survivors.
CBP noted that the ship's passengers were "processed without incident."
Limited options are available to leave the island, with thousands of desperate Bahamians lining up over the weekend to try and get a spot on a departing boat.
"I can’t do it no more," said Bentley Williams, who waited hours on Saturday for a ship to leave. She said she'd spent six hours the day before trying to get enough water for a bath. "I mean, I’ll do anything just to get off the island. I don’t wanna be here no more.”