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As Dorian loomed, Disney left staff on its Bahamian island. Cruise line says they’re safe

A crew of Disney Cruise Line workers rode out the most powerful hurricane to hit the Northwest Bahamas on a private island the company calls Castaway Cay.

On Monday, Disney Cruise Line posted an update on the Hurricane Dorian section of its website.

“Many of our guests have asked questions about Castaway Cay. Some of our crew remained on the island and their care and safety is our highest priority. As forecast, sustained winds on the island did not extend beyond tropical force strength and our crew has returned to their living quarters after spending a few hours in our storm shelter yesterday.

“Our thoughts continue to be with the people in areas of The Bahamas that are being impacted by this storm and we stand ready to contribute to recovery efforts.”

UPDATE: Disney defends decision

On Sunday, the company, responding to social media questions raised by the sister of one staffer, insisted that its employees were safe in a strong hurricane shelter as the eye of the hurricane with winds of up to 185 miles per hour passed just to the north.

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“My sister is stuck in the middle of a Cat 5 hurricane. We were told they would evacuate and they didn’t. Left them behind!! Why??,” Meg Green posted on Twitter. In another tweet, she wrote: “Remember that time [Disney Cruises] left 97 employees on a tiny island in a Catagory 5 hurricane? I do.”

Castaway Cay, a private island used by Disney as a stop for cruise passengers, is located near Great Abaco Island. The eye of Dorian passed directly over the town of Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Sunday afternoon. Five people were killed in the Abacos from Dorian, the Bahamian prime minister announced Monday evening.

Castaway Cay, originally known as Gorda Cay, is just off the southern end of the island.

Earlier in the week, several cruise lines told media outlets that they would close similar private islands also located nearby in the Bahamas. It was unclear if staffers at those sites were evacuated.

A spokesperson for Disney confirmed the company closed down the island for guests but said that there was no need to send away its staffers because there was a hurricane shelter on the property built to withstand Category 5 conditions and the storm was forecast to pass well to the north, sparing the island of Dorian’s strongest winds.

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The National Hurricane Center’s track did predict that Dorian would pass north of the Abacos as a Category 4 but also cautioned that the storm could increase in strength and shift in track. The little island also was in the cone of concern for days.

Dorian pounded the Abacos Sunday as a Category 5 storm, packing 165 mph winds and storm surges as high as 23 feet.

Kim Prunty, Disney’s vice president of communications and public affairs, responded to the worried woman on Twitter Sunday night.

“I understand your concern, as they are our co-workers. Castaway is south of the more significant weather. [Disney Cruise Lines] is in regular contact with island leadership and all are safe. Forecast calls for tropical storm force winds, which is what is there now. There are extensive measures in place to keep crew safe. A shelter on the island houses all crew and is stocked with a plentiful supply of food and water.“

The woman’s response: “Why risk the lives of 97 staff members? They had plenty of time to evacuate, but the decision was made to stay.”

Green did not respond to messages from The Miami Herald.

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Disney could not confirm Sunday night how many workers were on the island, but according to Disney’s website, about 60 workers live there year-round. The company said it was in constant communication via satellite phone every hour, on the hour.

A company spokesperson told the Herald evacuating the staff would have been difficult because the staffers would have had to take a boat and then a plane.

Following the woman’s Twitter complaint, the company released a statement: “Castaway Cay remains south of the more significant weather and is currently experiencing tropical storm force winds, which based on the current forecast, are expected for the next several hours before gradually diminishing.”

Castaway Cay is the first private island in the cruising industry. Disney obtained a 99-year lease on the 1,000 acre island from the Bahamian government in 1997, but the company says it now owns most of the island, purchasing it from a private owner.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Alex Harris contributed to this report.
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