When the Category 5 hurricane winds subsided, we saw a tragically familiar scene: The terrible destruction of the Abaco and Grand Bahama islands resembled what I saw when I touched down in Puerto Rico four days after Hurricane Maria in 2017, in Mozambique after the deadly Cyclone Idai last spring and in many other natural disasters since World Central Kitchen began in 2010, after a catastrophic earthquake in Haiti.
The international response was familiar too. After each disaster, there’s too much talk, not enough action. Dusty disaster manuals are consulted, contracts are negotiated in headquarters far away, military-style meals ready to eat, or MREs, are parachuted in — without enough focus on the actual survivors. Hungry people don’t need a plan, they need food, and too often the system leaves people hungry today by trying to feed them a month from now.
In the Bahamas, we started cooking as soon as the hurricane moved on, and I’m proud to report that our chef relief team, aided by thousands of volunteers and the support of the Bahamian government, has served more than 1 million meals in Dorian’s wake. Not MREs, but hot meals, sandwiches, fresh fruit, water. When people have seen their entire world devastated, one way to restore hope is to provide them with real food, not emergency rations that might just underline how desperate their situation is.
If this approach is to become a model for feeding survivors after a disaster, and we hope it will, a few lessons we’ve learned will be essential to keep in mind. Chief among them is the need to be adaptable. Too often, layers of bureaucracy and chains of command hinder effective responses. We followed Dorian’s forecast for a week before landfall, positioning teams of chefs in Puerto Rico, coastal Florida and across the Bahamian islands to be ready for any scenario. When we couldn’t safely establish a kitchen in Abaco, we went with plan B — and then to plan C. With few navigable roads, we made deliveries by helicopter and seaplane, and we rebuilt a washed-out dock to land our fleet of boats. Endless meetings at disaster-relief HQ impede the sort of flexibility that is vital to feeding survivors.
It’s not enough just to try to do good — it’s important to aim for smart good. Many organizations can deliver calories in the form of packaged junk food or costly taxpayer-funded MREs, but buying local is almost always cheaper, healthier and better for long-term economic recovery. In Puerto Rico, instead of waiting for shipments of bread to arrive from the mainland, we provided a grant to reopen a local bakery, putting its employees back to work and supplying our sandwich line in the process. Food relief shouldn’t just be measured in calories; it can be a catalyst of rebuilding a community.
That local food focus is just one aspect of the need for on-the-scene collaboration. We strive to establish coalitions that include fellow nongovernmental organizations, local business owners, government agencies, members of the military and the media. We often see the old way at work — organizations set up their own camp with a singular focus, not sharing information or receiving it from others about what they’re doing. Local chefs help us source ingredients; volunteers advise us about where to direct deliveries; if we encounter a bridge that needs rebuilding, we share the GPS coordinates with relief crews. To me it seems obvious: If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.
The need for better disaster preparedness is obvious as climate change threatens every corner of the world. The old model waits for the storm to clear before assessing how and where to send help. The old model sets up shop at untold expense to donors and taxpayers, only to create dependent communities that end up weaker than before. The old model is inefficient and insular, sometimes to a fatal degree; I hope to never again see a rescue vehicle set off in search of survivors without taking a full delivery of food and water.
New thinking is needed to address the rising dangers on the horizon. As citizens, we must be more demanding about where our donations go and about the impact of each dollar in aiding survivors and building resilience for the future.