Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico one week ago, on September 20, and seven days later, news out of the U.S. territory is still frustratingly difficult to come by. The death toll in Puerto Rico recently rose to 16 (that number jumps to 49 across the Caribbean), and as of today, nearly three and a half million U.S. citizens — representing the entire population of the island — are without power, according to multiple reports. Due to the extent of the damage, there’s little hope of restoring the electric grid any time soon.
“My family was lucky,” says bartender Rafa García Febles, who’s now living in New York City but grew up in San Juan, the island’s capital. “There are parts of the island that are still basically unaccounted for because the storm knocked out all of the cell towers and power grid.”
Febles’ parents and extended family, who still live in San Juan, are healthy and accounted for, though their property suffered extensive damage. “It’s much worse than even I realized,” he says. “Hospitals are running thanks to diesel-powered generators, but the supermarkets are running low. Everyone is stocking up but very few people have access to refrigeration. Restaurants are all effectively shut down. No one I know in the restaurant industry in San Juan is working right now.”
The category 4 storm also decimated the island’s agriculture, according to the New York Times; fruitful agriculture may not return to the island for a year or longer, a striking reality for an island where most day-to-day provisions are already dwindling. “It’s difficult to find food,” a Starbucks barista told members of the “Starbucks Newsroom” earlier this week. “We’re trying to save the little we can… people are fighting for food.”
But on the ground, as food remains scarce and commerce stagnant, members of the hospitality industry are leading relief efforts. Though president Trump didn’t acknowledge the tragedy until days after it occurred — and doesn’t have plans to visit the area until next week — superhero and D.C.-based chef José Andrés, who is of Spanish decent, flew down to the island earlier this week, staff and food in tow. (Government-sponsored as well as nonprofit food aid is also on the way; New York State promised goods and services and the federal government has sent troops.)
According to a rep, Andrés is meeting up with his friend and fellow chef, Jose Enrique, whose namesake San Juan restaurant is considered one of the island’s best. The two chefs are meeting with the owners of about 10 food trucks, and have a tentative plan to prep food at Jose Enrique’s restaurant and then send the trucks out to the neighborhoods that need food the most.
For the past few days, Enrique has been cooking out of his restaurant (which has limited power thanks to a generator). There, he’s cooking large batches of sancocho, a hearty stew made from smoked ham, chicken, pigs’ feet, beef, potatoes, yucca, corn, spices, and rice. He’s feeding about 100 people a day (for free) in La Placita, the local market in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce. Additionally, the chefs have started delivering the stew to nearby hospitals.
A representative for Jose Enrique suggests donations be sent to World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian organization founded by Andrés that delivers aid to areas affected by natural disasters. The group is using the hashtag #chefsforpuertorico to track donations and aid. For those in New York City, Febles is participating in a fundraiser for the new nonprofit ServePR alongside chef Maria Grubb of Santurce’s Gallo Negro and bartender Roberto Rosa. Tickets, $25 each, are on sale now.
This story is developing and will be updated with new information as it becomes available.