The Sandwich That Helped Feed Puerto Rico After FEMA Failed
Chef José Andrés on Getting to Work in the Aftermath of Maria
Everywhere my team traveled, there were signs of distress, two and a half weeks after the hurricane. In Humacao, at the eastern edge of the island where Maria first made landfall, a simple sign by the road said it all: La playa tiene hambre. The beach is hungry.
While the island was still hungry, I drove over to the convention center for another mass care meeting. Our contract with FEMA was signed a day earlier, and would run for just two more days. But we had more than fulfilled our end of the deal. Since October 4th, when the contract began, we had prepared and delivered more than 190,000 meals. By the time it was over, we would hit more than 300,000 on a contract that would only pay us for 140,000. The money wasn’t the most pressing issue for us; the hunger bothered us much, much more. We didn’t care about total numbers. We only cared about fulfilling all the orders we received.
It was my first time back at the FEMA headquarters since they kicked me out of the building at gunpoint. There was still an endless flow of volunteers from charities, newly arrived from the airport. Unlike the newcomers, who are issued credentials in no time, I still had no official ID card to enter the building, two weeks after the start of Chefs For Puerto Rico. Nobody ever told me why: it seemed petty and personal but that’s how FEMA wanted to behave. So I was forced to grab people as they walked into the secure space—or rather, officials walked up to me to ask me what was going on outside their Caribbean green zone. Eventually FEMA official Elizabeth DiPaolo came down the escalator to talk to me outside the security line.
“I can feed 500,000 people tomorrow,” I told her. “But I need to know what you think is the real need. We can use local kitchens and local food to get money into the local economy. I have already activated so many kitchens. I just need to understand how these contracts are going to work.”
“The first contract with you is no problem,” she said patiently. “That contract is already done. But we can’t make another contract like that. That contract was just to get you started.”
“But the requests we get are endless,” I said.
“We know we need to do at least two million meals a day,” she readily conceded. “But the people in charge are the state of Puerto Rico. We are all partners in support of them. In fact, we have to do six million meals a day. Work with us as a partner.”
“Let me loose,” I begged. “I can feed the island.”
“The first contract was easy but if you want a second, it’s something else. You’ve met your requirements already.”
“It’s the people of Puerto Rico who want food. And I can’t provide it to them.”
“So do you want another contract?” she asked, once again coming back to the bureaucratic needs, not the needs of the people.
“I don’t need another contract. I already have people on the radio saying I’m getting rich from the people of Puerto Rico.”
“Who is saying that?” Elizabeth asked, incredulous.
“The number one radio station on the island,” I told her, knowing she had no idea what that was or where to find it. “You should hear what they say about FEMA and the governor too.”
“Can you really do that many meals?” she asked, sounding just as incredulous as she did about the radio station.
“I have 11 kitchens already and can find more. There’s a catering company at the airport and they can do more than 250,000. And I can do it cheaper and faster than anyone else. And on time.”
The mass care meeting was about to begin, so we walked across the street to a huge windowless meeting room in the Sheraton hotel. Elizabeth opened the meeting by asking people to tell everyone their accomplishments for the day, hopefully with numbers, their plans for tomorrow and any challenges they might face to get there.
The Puerto Rico State Guard reported delivering 4.3 million bottles of water and 2 million meals, since the hurricane landed. The military was clearly the biggest operation on the island, and all of those meals were MREs.
The Department of Education reported they provided 115,000 meals to date through the first lady’s “stop and go” distribution points across the island, including 2050 meals that day. With the island’s schools reopening tomorrow, there was a chance they could cook for many more. But the process of reopening and activating school kitchens was slow, and the education officials said it was taking time to get the orders through to the regional directors of the schools in the mountains.
Puerto Rican agriculture officials said they were still struggling to get enough truck drivers to move produce and water around. Their contractor had one hundred trucks but they were looking to activate many more. To me, it wasn’t clear why the military couldn’t or wouldn’t help. Perhaps they were simply in the dark, but the Pentagon is never short of trucks or drivers. And the need was urgent: the next day the island’s Department of the Family was expecting to receive one million pounds of food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
At that point, the meeting turned to the nonprofits, or what they call volunteer agencies. FEMA mostly wanted to make sure we were all cooperating, or “playing in a big sandbox together,” as they put it. But it wasn’t clear what purpose or goals the group had, never mind how anyone could cooperate.
For now, the meeting was given over to the strange characters that disasters seem to attract. A new group had just flown in from Florida: Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, a fringe group with anarchist leanings that emerged after Katrina. Then the Scientologists said they had 60 pallets of goods coming from New York, and wondered how they could get them to Puerto Rico.
“FEMA doesn’t ship donations,” said one official. “We don’t take the task of bringing donations over.”
The Scientologists asked for help and the group pitched in with random ideas. FedEx perhaps? How about DHL? Maybe the airlines like JetBlue could help? Or they could get sponsored by a big corporation?
“We have the funds but we just don’t have the actual transportation,” the Scientologists replied.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was not just totally detached from the crisis on the island. It was even detached from my experiences of solving problems on the island.
It was the turn of the American Red Cross to weigh in, as the organization whose unique charter gives it a congressional mandate to deliver disaster relief, coordinated by FEMA. The Red Cross report was a window into how inadequate the disaster relief was on the island. They said they had distributed 1.2 million pounds of food to date, which sounded like a lot until you divided it between 3.4 million Puerto Ricans needing 3 meals a day for the last 20 days. It was less than an ounce of daily food for each Puerto Rican.
Even the measures of food were confusing and FEMA had no way of understanding what was going on. The Red Cross talked about pounds of food, while others were talking about pallets. We preferred to talk about meals, which was actually what FEMA’s contracts specified. All these counts went into a big Excel spreadsheet that FEMA maintained and emailed every day. At the bottom of the spreadsheet, the total count of food was supposed to be there for everyone to see. Instead, the count was a calculating error because there was no standard unit of food that everyone used. If FEMA couldn’t manage a spreadsheet, how could it manage an emergency?
“As part of our distribution efforts we are doing some feeding activity with prepared foods,” the Red Cross explained. “Water continues to be a challenge and we’re also distributing water filters, things like that. It depends on the solution of how we can get clean water to small communities and homes. We need to know what are the communities, and the needs and the long-term strategies because some areas will be without for a long time. We’re trying to get creative right now. A lot of the normal tools in the toolbox are not there right now.”
So there was no water pretty much everywhere, and they had no idea what the solution would be or when it would come. The Red Cross did say it had handed out some water filters for “almost 3,000” families. I couldn’t understand why nobody was screaming about a water crisis for American citizens. Where was the sense of urgency?
The Red Cross was supplying a little food, they said. But the reality was, as they admitted, a bit more like people surviving on their own. “People are able to cook in a lot of communities,” they reported. “There are a lot of grills and propane users. We’re trying to support that effort as much as we can because we know there’s delays in getting food distribution.”
This is what we all knew from driving around the island, and what you had to assume in the absence of food riots. People were relying on their home supplies of food and propane. But who knew how long that would last? It was all very random and disorganized. And if you knew people were cooking like this, why would you continue to supply so many MREs?
The reality is that around 40 percent of Puerto Ricans qualify for what we used to call food stamps. On the island, this is called nutritional assistance but it is paid electronically on cards. Just 20 percent of the assistance can be redeemed as cash to pay for food, which is all of $80 for a family of four. With the lack of power and communications on the island, the supermarkets were finding it impossible to swipe cards, including the food assistance cards.
Why weren’t the Red Cross and FEMA moving from the card system to good old-fashioned cash? Because the Trump administration was unwilling to rethink the basics of the system in this crisis. When the island’s Department of the Family asked to increase the amount that could be drawn as cash from 20 to 50 percent, the Trump USDA said no. As a consolation, it said people could use the cards to buy hot food or sandwiches in approved stores. If you walked into a Puerto Rican supermarket, with empty shelves and refrigerators with no power, you would know how unrealistic that was. Even the Trump agriculture officials knew how bad the situation was. “We understand that at this
point in time all food retail outlets in Puerto Rico are challenged by a lack of inventory, power and connectivity issues,” the USDA wrote. “Additionally, ATMs are experiencing connectivity issues and limits on cash.”
As an exercise in mass care, the meeting was just that: an exercise. It was as disconnected from the reality of food shortages in Puerto Rico as the sushi bar downstairs in the gleaming white bar of the Sheraton hotel.