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As cruise ships come and go, a scramble to get ready


At the Port of Galveston, cruise ships are coming and going more often than ever.

Nearly 300 times this year, cruise ships operated by Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Disney will dock at one of Galveston’s two cruise terminals, back from the Caribbean or Mexico, and release their passengers back to their post-vacation lives.

There’s a controlled chaos around a ship’s arrival in port. In the course of less than half a day, the companies have to clear out, clean and resupply a floating hotel, with as many as 4,900 passengers aboard.

The trucks start arriving at 6 a.m., nearly as soon as the ships pull into port, and while crew members are still throwing lines to dockworkers and tug boats are pushing the big liners to the pier.

The trucks carry everything needed for the journey: diet soft drinks and vacuum cleaners, linens and flowers, apples and lobster tails. The ship connects to the city’s fresh water supply, and solid waste is unloaded into trucks.

“Every week is the same process,” said Henry Torres, the assistant business agent of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1504. “New crew, food for seven days, drinks for seven days. You name it, they get whatever they need.”

As many as 80 men from the ILA can work loading and unloading a ship, Torres said

In recent years, the port has increased the number of cruises that it services, and the cruise ships have gotten bigger.

In May, the port set an unofficial record for the average size and capacity of the cruise ships that moved into and out of the port.

Bigger cruise ships means more work for the longshoremen of the ILA, Torres said.

“They’re adding more people on and we’re getting the work done,” he said.

More than just loading and unloading of supplies occurs during the turnaround. The U.S. Coast Guard conducts a seaworthiness inspection, while the first passengers scheduled to board are screened through security, and passengers leaving the ship move through customs.

Both processes can be time-consuming, as security teams flag things that can’t go on the ship and customs officers make passengers account for things coming off of it.

As more passengers move through the port every year, officials are exploring the possibility of upgrading customs systems at the cruise terminals to include self-service kiosks, like those in some airports, said Cristina Galego, a spokeswoman for the Port of Galveston.

Smaller things get attention too. Soon after a ship docks, workers get out buckets and begin rolling new coats of paint on the hull. Sometimes, a wedding party is hustled through the terminal for a ceremony on the ship that must be completed before it departs. Sometimes, the Galveston County Medical Examiner must go aboard to retrieve the body of a person who died while sailing.

Meanwhile, the hundreds of crew members disembark for a few hours of personal time.

Many will head to stores on Galveston Island to pick up supplies for their next sail, but others will opt to go into the small Crew Connection store tucked into the backside of the cruise terminal.

The store aims to serve the diverse crews of the cruise ship, said Robert Darato, who has owned and operated the store since it opened in the early 2000s. Darato stocks his store with foods and treats both familiar and foreign. The stores of the shelves are stacked with bagged treats from places such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

The store also has a wire transfer station that allows the ship workers to send money back home, and Darato allows his store to act as the “home address” for packages they may buy on Amazon.

Darato, who worked on commercial ships before opening the stores, said he enjoys interacting with the cruise ship employees and giving them a taste of home.

But he also noted that the rush to turn a cruise ship around limits the amount of time the employees get to spend at his store. Some are required to be back working on the ship by 2:30 p.m.

“I wish I had them for another 30 minutes,” he said

Francisco Seco  

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Improvement deadline looms for federally subsidized Galveston complex


As owners work under a government deadline to make repairs and improve living conditions at the federally subsidized Compass Pointe Apartments, some residents worry changes are only superficial.

“They painted the doors and power washed the windows,” resident Cynthia Minix said. “They’ve still got mold in the house.”

Residents of the 192-unit complex, 3916 Winnie St., also known locally as Sandpiper Cove, have been complaining for months about mold, bugs and leaking pipes and hoping for improvement in their living conditions.

The complex, owned by Ohio-based Millennia Housing Management, failed a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development inspection May 8, and had until about June 15 make improvements, according to the federal department.

“They’re working on the outside, not too much on the inside,” Minix said.

The owner of an apartment complex with a failing score has 60 days to complete a 100 percent inspection of the property and certify all deficiencies have been corrected, said Scott Hudman, spokesman for the federal housing department.

The owner could also file for an extension request in that time, Hudman said.

Items listed as deficiencies in the May 8 inspection included insects and roaches, mold or mildew, missing or obstructed accessibility routes and leaking pipes, according to a copy of the inspection report obtained by The Daily News.

Department staff will schedule a site visit once the owner certifies all the deficiencies have been corrected and will create an action plan with the owner if repairs haven’t been made, Hudman said.

Millennia has rehabilitated thousands of units across the country and will do so at Compass Pointe, company spokeswoman Valerie Jerome said in a statement.

“At Sandpiper Cove, we look forward to garnering support as we work toward making a comprehensive rehabilitation a reality,” Jerome said.

The company has made some leadership changes at various levels, Jerome said.

Management of the property has been replaced, said Zoe Middleton, spokeswoman for Texas Housers, a nonprofit housing advocacy group with offices in Austin and Houston.

The group has been working with Compass Pointe residents to advocate for tenant rights, as it has done at other properties.

“They have been responsive to some tenant issues, but the property still requires substantial repairs,” Middleton said.

Repairs made during a short window of time likely won’t be substantial enough for a property like Compass Pointe, Middleton said.

“We believe residents have a right to stay in Galveston if they so choose, a right to have a say in decisions about their housing, a right to equal treatment, and a right to choose where they live,” Middleton said.

Minix would rather stay in Compass Pointe if her apartment is improved and the mold in her unit is removed, she said.

But resident Jessie Jordan would rather live somewhere else, Jordan said.

Jordan has been dealing with mold and leaks above her ceiling, she said.

“We need to get out of here real bad,” Jordan said.

She was born in Galveston and wants to stay here, but she’d rather have a federal voucher she can apply to live in a different apartment or house, she said.

In May, the complex received a score of 33 from the federal housing department on an exam where 60 is passing, Hudman said.

In a 2016 inspection, the federal department gave the complex a score of 80, according to an inspection report. The report also indicated inspectors found one or more fire safety deficiencies.

UTMB study explores muscle loss during space flights

Randall Urban

As the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing approaches, America’s got space travel on the brain, and a study by University of Texas Medical Branch researchers on the health of astronauts could make a big contribution to healthier space voyages in the future.

The study, published in the open source medical journal PLOS One, documents the effect on muscle mass of reduced gravity during space flight missions and the potential of customized exercise and hormone treatments to minimize muscle loss on long journeys.

Space flight-related losses in muscle mass and strength are among the prime concerns for long duration space exploration missions and involve alterations in myofibrillar protein content and metabolism, according to the medical branch study, funded by NASA.

“What we’ve shown, the real benefit of the study, is that we may be able to reduce the amount of time astronauts spend exercising to avoid losing muscle mass,” said Dr. Randall Urban, senior author of the study, professor, endocrinologist and vice president of clinical research in the medical branch’s school of medicine.

Astronauts, especially those in space for a while, have to spend as much as 2½ to 3 hours a day exercising to maintain muscle mass in low-gravity environments, such as the International Space Station and other spacecraft. Knowing this, NASA commissioned several bed rest studies, including this one at the medical branch, looking for ways to avoid muscle atrophy, Urban said.

The medical branch study took healthy subjects chosen by NASA’s Human Research Program, and put them on complete bed rest for a 70-day period. Some of the 24 subjects performed a combination of aerobic and resistance exercises while prone and received either small-dose testosterone or placebo injections, while a control group remained bedridden without any exercise training or supplements. Researchers gathered muscle biopsies throughout the study, analyzing proteins within the muscle tissue, according to a study summary.

“The study has given us the ability to identify biomarkers that predict how susceptible each individual is to muscle function decline and how effectively different exercise and hormone treatments can combat the muscle atrophy,” Urban said.

The hope is that, down the line, scientists might be able to identify people more at risk to muscle atrophy and prescribe a mix of exercise and hormone therapy that will prevent muscle loss in space.

“It’s in the future and this is a first step to that,” Urban said. “As we begin to understand each individual, their genotype and the proteins they’re expressing, we can begin to identify how certain people will do in certain situations, to say yes, you’ll do well in space flight or no, you’ll need testosterone.”

The team hopes to be able to extend the results to women as well, with customized doses of testosterone, to see whether they have the same kind of response as men, Urban said.

That would require another bed rest study and, for now, the medical branch’s bed rest unit is closed while NASA has taken its bed rest studies abroad to Europe, Urban said.

But Urban and others involved in this research are looking for ways to take what they’ve learned and translate it to earthbound patient populations.

“We’re now investigating using low dose testosterone in men and women with COPD, in conjunction with pulmonary rehab and an exercise program,” Urban said. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a lung disease that affects about 16 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, NASA has recently announced it will allow private citizens to visit the International Space Station, underscoring a growing need to understand the effect of reduced gravity on the human body and how to prevent muscle atrophy in space.