As Hurricane Florence spins toward the Carolina coast, the nation’s attention will be on the disaster readiness and response of governments and the affected communities. Have lessons been learned since the deeply flawed government response to Hurricane Katrina back in 2005?
I examined FEMA and the Katrina response in this study, discussing both the government failures and the impressive private-sector relief efforts.
Last year, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, again exposing all sorts of government failures. Well-known chef José Andrés has a new book on the Maria response. He had an eye-opening experience on the island volunteering on relief efforts with his World Central Kitchen.
The Washington Post’s review of the book says that Andrés saw the flaws of top-down bureaucratic relief efforts and embraces more of a spontaneous order view of effective disaster relief:
With We Fed an Island, chef-and-restaurateur-turned-relief worker José Andrés doesn’t just tell the story about how he and a fleet of volunteers cooked millions of meals for the Americans left adrift on Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He exposes what he views as an outdated top-down, para-military-type model of disaster relief that proved woefully ineffective on an island knocked flat by the Category 4 hurricane.
… ‘My original plan was to cook maybe ten thousand meals a day for five days, and then return home,’ Andrés writes. Instead, Andrés and the thousands of volunteers who composed Chefs for Puerto Rico remained for months, preparing and delivering more than 3 million meals to every part of the island. They didn’t wait for permission from FEMA.
… These grass-roots culinary efforts didn’t always sit well with administration officials or with executives at hidebound charities, in part because Andrés was no diplomat. He trolled Trump on Twitter over the situation on Puerto Rico. He badgered FEMA for large contracts to ramp up production to feed even more hungry citizens. He infamously told Time magazine that the “American government has failed” in Puerto Rico. A chef used to fast-moving kitchens, Andrés had zero patience for slow-footed bureaucracy, especially in a time of crisis.
… After dealing with so much red tape and mismanagement (remember the disastrous $156 million contract that FEMA awarded to a small, inexperienced company to prepare 30 million hot meals?), Andrés wants the government and nonprofit groups to rethink the way they handle food after a large-scale natural disaster. He wants them to drop the authoritarian, top-down style and embrace the chaos inherent in crisis. Work with available local resources, whether residents or idle restaurants and schools. Give people the authority and the means to help themselves. Stimulate the local economy.
‘What we did was embrace complexity every single second,’ Andrés writes. ‘Not planning, not meeting, just improvising. The old school wants you to plan, but we needed to feed the people.’
Andrés and World Central Kitchen have embraced complexity.
Hail to the chef!