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Aboard New Orleans' `fun ships,' it's a voyage to boredom

NEW ORLEANS—With satellite TV, gourmet food and a cruise ship cabin provided at taxpayers' expense, one might expect Creola Oliver to be living large.

But the elderly New Orleans woman, who lost her Uptown home to floods wrought by Hurricane Katrina, doesn't feel she is.

"All I do is walk around, look at the soap operas on TV," Oliver said. "Nothing to do, nowhere to go."

Oliver is among 5,600 people who are living on three cruise ships rented from Carnival Cruise Lines in a controversial $192 million deal to find housing for police, firefighters and other people left homeless by the storm.

The six-month federal contract has spurred a congressional call for a special office to investigate spending on hurricane relief. Critics point out that the contract costs about $2,550 per guest per week, about four times the base price of a seven-day Caribbean cruise, which would include cruise-line expenditures for entertainment and fuel.

Carnival, which canceled 120,000 reservations to make the ships available, isn't making any extra profit from the arrangement, said Irene Lui, a company spokeswoman. The contract—which brought the Ecstasy and Sensation ships to New Orleans and the Holiday to Mobile, Ala.—was made in only 36 hours, and assumptions had to be made about taxes, fuel, water and other costs, she said.

"In the end, the company will make approximately the same amount that they would have earned had they kept these ships in regular service," she said.

Carnival's lost income, including tips, casino operations and alcohol sales, is figured into the contract.

The controversy doesn't matter much to folks such as Oliver, whose post-Katrina life doesn't live up to Carnival's "fun ships" slogan.

The bars are closed because no alcohol is allowed aboard, and the casino is shuttered. No Las Vegas-type shows take the stage at the Fantasia Lounge and no one croons at the piano bar. Steel drum bands, a staple of any Caribbean excursion, are absent. Instead, Muzak favorites such as the love theme from "The Titanic" play softly over the PA system.

Few people onboard seem to be thinking about what they'll do and where they'll go when their time on the ship runs out in six months. It seems impossible to believe that their homes—and their lives—will be rebuilt in such a short time.

But while they're on the ship, there are a few perks. They're treated to free movies—PG-rated films such as "Because of Winn-Dixie"—at 9 p.m. daily, and the video arcade is free. Those inclined to exercise may use the aerobics room, lift weights or jog around the outdoor track on the Sun Deck. No one has to pick up towels or make beds; maid and linen service is provided every other day. Meals are prepared in the ships' kitchens, and just about anything can be had at any time, a stipulation of the contract.

Elias Cottrell, who was putting in a few laps around the track, worries that he's gaining weight.

"It's accommodating. I have a room to sleep. I have my meals and there's a gym," said Cottrell, a housing administrator who's one of the 3,000 employees laid off by the cash-strapped city of New Orleans. "But it's somewhat confining."

Others share his view. They're free to leave the ship when they please, but there's nowhere to go. Their houses are gone and their cars ruined, and the central business district nearby is functioning only feebly.

From a kid's perspective, though, it's an adventure of a lifetime.

"It's fun here," said DaVante Gethers, 12. "You get to go to the game arcade and play for free. And you get to eat whenever you want."

She's aboard with her father, David Gethers, who lost his home in the Gentilly area and was laid off from his job as a New Orleans civic sheriff's deputy—one day and one month short of his 20-year pension.

"The ship is comfortable for my kids. They are feeding us, and there's no running from hotel to hotel," he said as the family chose lunch from a menu that included pizza, fried Cajun spicy chicken, blackened grouper filet, boiled potatoes, white rice and fresh fruit.

Christine Woodridge and her son Kharree are aboard with her husband, a New Orleans district fire chief. More than 1,000 police officers, firefighters, medics and their families live aboard the ships along with evacuees, soldiers and disaster workers.

Although she misses her home, Woodridge is happy to be in New Orleans rather than a shelter in Houston or Baton Rouge, La. "At least it makes me feel like I'm home," she said.

For Kenyatta Box, boredom is a challenge. Her husband, Andre, is a New Orleans firefighter, and they have three children aboard, sharing a 262-square-foot cabin.

"Everything is the same here. Sometimes you forget what day it is."

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(Crumbo reports for The (Columbia, S.C.) State, Hone-McMahan for the Akron Beacon Journal.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-STORMS-CRUISESHIPS

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