Sailing along the Atlantic coastline from New York , the Empire State rounded Florida , dodged Hurricane Ophelia and cut a path along the same waters that Hurricane Katrina had sliced in its rampant urgency.
On board were faculty and staff from SUNY Maritime
College , which operates the 565-foot training ship. The Empire State is owned by the federal government, which activated the vessel after Hurricane Katrina.
The ship's operators are trading their normal lives to provide disaster relief, leaving their own homes to provide one for the homeless.
The Empire State is now serving as a floating hotel for uprooted oil rig workers who are working 24 hours a day to repair a New Orleans oil refinery.
"We're all operating at a high level of intensity," said Tom Spina
, a SUNY Maritime security officer and purser, from on board. "We're the central hub of what's happening."
Calling it "unfathomable," he described entire communities wiped out and barges and buoys tossed hundreds of feet inland.
"It's remarkabale devastation and destruction," Spina said.
Led by Captain Rick Smith, the crew of Maritime faculty and staff aboard the Empire State includes Matt Mahanna, chief mate; Ann Barry, second mate; William McCaney, first assistant; Matthew O'Donnell, chief engineer; and Andrew McCarthy, also a security officer and purser.
All are members of United University Professions, New York State United Teachers' higher education affiliate representing academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York. Most are also graduates of SUNY Maritime, a four-year college with majors in engineering, business and environmental science.
To get the nearly 1,000 workers on and off the ship each day, security is paramount. A guardhouse is located 50 feet from the vessel, Spina said, and workers are checked again on board, where they get their IDs. "Accountability aboard the vessel is vital," Spina said.
Each new group has to learn the techniques of sleeping in small metal rooms like rabbit warrens, and of maneuvering around a ship with low ceilings and numerous passageways.
"Most of these people don't even have houses anymore," Spina said. "We have to make sure they're fed and keep morale high."
The ship has foosball tables, a weight room, cardio workouts, movies and games.
While the oil workers de-stress, the crew still hums. Garbage must be disposed of; food and water must be taken aboard daily, and maintenance and repair are constant.
"We have to keep the ship running while we house all these guys," said McCarthy, who will leave his infant son, Jack, and his wife for relief duty in the Gulf Coast in November.
The ship can house about 764 people. In summer, the Empire State sails to five different ports in the Mediterranean, Europe and the Caribbean , giving SUNY Maritime students hands-on-deck experience to supplement the academic training they receive during the school year.