Nearly two years ago, José Andrés and World Central Kitchen found themselves battling bureaucracy and the battered infrastructure of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria delivered a Category 4 wallop to the island. Neither the celebrity chef nor the small nonprofit organization would ever be the same again.
More evidence of their lifestyle change came over the Labor Day weekend as Hurricane Dorian hovered over the Bahamas and slowly dismantled the island nation, leaving at least five people dead, 21 injured and countless buildings destroyed. The storm first hit the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas on Sunday, bringing Category 5 winds and slashing rains. It was the largest storm on record in the Bahamas.
Andrés and World Central Kitchen landed in Nassau, the nation’s capital, ahead of the storm and began staging the relief efforts as Dorian churned closer to the islands. Andrés himself delivered a report from the island, reminding viewers that he was nowhere near the eye of the storm, which at that time was centered above the Abaco Islands. The chef had to scream above the pounding rains, which lashed his face and drenched his clothes.
“This is going to be one of the biggest ever,” he says to the camera. “Let’s pray for everybody in Abaco.”
If the chef and his nonprofit rewrote the textbook in 2017 on how to respond to natural disasters — feed the people hot or homemade meals, not MREs; rely on available resources, not just those shipped from far away; allow the people to help feed themselves, not rely on outsiders — they had to learn these lessons the hard way in Puerto Rico: by on-the-job training and improvisation. They activated any space with electricity and water: churches, restaurants, food trucks, even the Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan. Andrés frequently had to fight for his place at the table with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief officials.
Two years later, those hassles seemed like ancient history as the 2019 hurricane season saw its worst storm yet, Hurricane Dorian, batter the Bahamas over the weekend before turning north to start its trudge along the East Coast of the United States. According to a map that Andrés tweeted out, World Central Kitchen had more than a dozen potential sites on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands to start feeding people.
“If kitchens are destroyed, we build one and cook in big paella pans!” World Central Kitchen volunteers did exactly that — cooked in outdoor paella pans — after Hurricane Michael flattened much of the Florida panhandle in October.
On Tuesday afternoon, Andrés tweeted a video from a pilot who surveyed the damage on Abaco. You can hear one person say that several sites are “gone,” or buried underwater. The chef added his own commentary in the tweet, “I am hoping to land there this afternoon with sandwiches and fruit, and @WCKitchen will try to establish relief kitchen[s] immediately.”
In some ways, Andrés and WCK employees have become as much reporters on the scene as first responders, given their access to disaster areas. They not only talk about what food they’re preparing, and for whom, but about the current conditions and the availability of resources.
Andrés was not immediately available for comment Tuesday, but Tim Kilcoyne, director of chef operations for World Central Kitchen, sent around a video on Twitter. He said volunteers on Monday had prepared and delivered more than 1,000 ham-and-cheese sandwiches to those affected on Abaco.
“A lot of places were closed yesterday, a lot of stores,” Kilcoyne said, while standing at a Bahamas Food Services warehouse in Nassau. The BFS facility “reopened today, getting a ton of product. We got apples and oranges. … We got bread for our sandwiches, lettuce.”
Volunteers were preparing tuna sandwiches on Tuesday and delivering them to the hungry on Abaco via helicopter, Kilcoyne said.
“We’ll be here,” Kilcoyne added. “We have more teams coming from Florida. … We will have lots to report on and more images and everything coming soon.”
In the two years since Maria hit Puerto Rico, Andrés and World Central Kitchen have embraced their role as first responders working to feed victims of natural disasters. They have responded to disasters of every stripe: They deployed to the Venezuelan-Colombian border during the power struggle in Venezuela. They traveled to California after the devastating wildfires. They set up kitchens in Indonesia after the earthquake and tsunami. They even opened a relief kitchen in downtown Washington to feed federal workers during the partial government shutdown this year.
Andrés, World Central Kitchen employees and volunteers have prepared and served millions of meals around the world.
In the process, World Central Kitchen has grown from a small organization, with total assets of $119,000 in 2016, to one with total assets of $16.3 million in 2018, according to World Central Kitchen’s financials. Andrés is up for a Nobel Peace Prize, which will be announced Oct. 11 in Oslo.
Not that the chef seems to be paying much attention to honors. He and the World Central Kitchen team have their hands full in the Bahamas, while also tracking Dorian to see if they need to set up operations elsewhere in the storm’s path.