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‘We All Were Driven by the Need to Feed an Island’

In an excerpt from his upcoming book, José Andrés reflects on his first weeks on the ground in Puerto Rico

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As people sang along to “Despacito” through the summer of 2017, how many of them understood that Luis Fonsi’s hit was born in this American-Spanish corner of the Caribbean? If you were going to create a song that represented the perfect blend of cultures to break through the language barrier, a song that would garner the most views ever on YouTube, it would be right here in Puerto Rico. And when the hurricanes landed just a few weeks after the end of summer vacation, how many of those “Despacito” fans had any idea the islanders were American citizens just like them? —José Andrés, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time

This week, officials in Puerto Rico released a new estimate of the number of American citizens who died following Hurricane Maria: The storm claimed 2,975 lives, nearly 50 times the earlier estimate of 64. Much of the island, an American territory, went without power, access to communication, or transportation for months. Though there are signs of hope, and the power is back on in major cities, most of Puerto Rico is still reeling from the deadliest hurricane to hit its shores since 1899.

One of the first mainlanders to get to the island following the storm in September 2017 was chef, activist, and restaurateur José Andrés. In his latest book, We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time, written with political analyst and Obama biographer Richard Wolffe, Andrés recounts his experience in Puerto Rico. After seeing the news on television, the chef caught one of the first flights to the island and saw the devastation and hunger first hand. “We knew that downed communications and electricity would make life difficult, but Puerto Rico was still the United States,” Andrés writes in his introduction. “It couldn’t be as bad as Haiti. We thought we’d be back by the end of the week. We were wrong.”

From the moment he landed on the island, three days after the hurricane hit, the chef describes a whirlwind of emotion on seeing the devastation to infrastructure, hospitals that essentially functioned as morgues, people drinking untreated water from streams in desperation, and whole families that went without food for days.

Andrés and his tiny nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, prepared more than 3 million meals over the course of three months. Meanwhile, the federal government and biggest NGOS — led by a clearly overwhelmed FEMA; an American Red Cross more concerned with bad PR than using its money and might to help; and a disorganized Salvation Army — argued about money, contracts, and logistics. “We overcame blocked roads and collapsed bridges, political opposition and bureaucratic red tape, supply bottlenecks and cash crunches. It was hot, sweaty, exhausting work,” Andrés writes. “But it was also life-changing and inspiring, channeling our love to do something as simple as this: to feed the people.”

In this excerpt from We Fed an Island, Andrés describes the beginning of his second week in Puerto Rico, World Central Kitchen’s rapid expansion, and the first time he breaks down, overwhelmed with emotion on realizing he and his team were almost completely on their own. —Daniela Galarza

Weekends are usually a day for families and food in Puerto Rico. People travel to the hills to eat huge meals of roast pork, plantains and rice, at a lechonera, or barbecue, where roast pigs turn on vast spits above open fires. They line up at kioskos near the beach, where they deep-fry vast numbers of bacalaitos with salt cod, or plantain tostones. This is the time for family and friends to come together as a community, in a town square, in front of a church, or just at the biggest house in the neighborhood.

Two Sundays after the hurricane, we wanted to support that tradition. We wanted to bring food back to the heart of these hurting communities. Not just to feed people, but to tell them that the outside world cared for them.

It was also our last day at José Enrique’s restaurant in Santurce, a place I loved for all its warmth and community spirit. It felt like my home and hearth, where we sweated and struggled our way to cook tens of thousands of meals. In these narrow streets where San Juan used to party, we had built the foundations for an island-wide food relief operation, and a model for future disasters. But we had grown too big for the space, and as the team prepared to move on, we took our meals onto the roads.

We now had four giant paella pans cooking vast amounts of rice, chicken, and vegetables, along with our famous sancocho and a huge sandwich operation. We would hit a new record on this Sunday: 20,000 meals, almost 10 times our starting point less than a week earlier, and twice what we had produced just two days ago.

Our first delivery was one thousand meals to Cataño, to the east of San Juan. Under a giant white canopy, with music blaring, we set up tables and served our meals in a party atmosphere. Alongside me were the mayor of Cataño, Félix Delgado, and the island’s secretary of state, Luis Rivera-Marín, who were only too happy to spoon out the rice and chicken. You could see the commitment in Félix’s face: like many mayors, he was very hands on. Our only problem was that we forgot to bring serving spoons with us. But when you’re committed to helping people, you always find a solution, and we survived without them. Four big spoons showed up from I don’t know where.

As we set off for our next delivery, our team back in Santurce was packing up the whole operation and moving to our new home at the Coliseum arena.

It was clear from our travels that we needed to grow, and we needed to do that quickly. On our drive to Ponce, in the far south of the island, the devastation was clear. The trees were stripped bare of their branches and leaves. The sad journey felt like we had entered another world, where the trees had just lost an epic battle against some immensely powerful force. Cell phone service died on the way to Ponce and we lost all contact with our team back in San Juan. I had to remind myself this was the United States, not some third-world country, eleven days after a hurricane.

Slowly, some essential services were coming back. Thirty-six percent of Puerto Ricans now had cell phone coverage, according to the governor. One thousand more troops were arriving, but the total number now stood at only 6,400. At the same time, there were 8,800 American citizens in refugee shelters across the island.

Even with expanded numbers of military personnel, the troops were overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the challenge. Besides, those numbers weren’t nearly as important as the 55 percent of Puerto Ricans who didn’t have access to clean water. That represented 1.87 million Americans without the essential ingredient for life. Fully 95 percent of islanders still had no access to power.

As soon as we arrived in Ponce, we met the city’s mayor, Maria Melendez Altieri, known to all as Mayita. She was happy to see us, even as she was troubleshooting an endless list of challenges with minimal support from the San Juan government. When the island’s secretary of state showed up at the same time, she calmly took him to task. FEMA had given her a satellite phone that did not work. How was she supposed to handle all the problems of the island’s second biggest city?

I already knew about the gravity of the food crisis in Ponce thanks to my friend Lymari Nadal, the actress and writer, who had visited earlier to check on her family in the city. She brought 500 meals but said she could have handed out 5,000 or more.

Together with the mayor, we visited a school that was also serving as a refugio, or shelter. I was amazed at how good the conditions were in the kitchen and cafeteria. They had enough food and refrigeration to feed not just the refugio but the egidas nearby. I gave an impromptu speech, thanking them for the job they were doing, and telling them how we were already cooking thousands of meals a day. They cheered with joy: at times like these, any message of hope is an important boost in the face of such overwhelming challenges.

It was getting late and we moved on with the mayor to some outer areas, where Mayita told us they still didn’t have the full picture of how bad the conditions were. Her team was simply overwhelmed by the disaster. That was what we found in the El Tuque area near Ponce, in the southwest of the island. The people there had no water and would walk thirty minutes each way to get their hands on a liter. Some were drinking from a nearby stream out of sheer desperation. There was no power, and the mosquitoes were swarming. The local supermarkets were empty. Our arrival seemed to lift their hopes, even if they initially thought we were FEMA officials coming to save them, because we arrived with an escort of HSI officers. As we served our chicken and rice, along with half an avocado for each person, those we fed were smiling but their patience and good nature masked real hunger and need. We served one thousand meals and took one thousand sandwiches to another community nearby, and we made a critical decision right there: we would open up a satellite kitchen in the area to produce ten thousand meals a day to help serve this community of fifty thousand people, for at least a week or two, until they got back on their feet. Mayita thanked us but I was making promises when I didn’t know how I could keep them. Still, I was determined to make it happen.

That day I was still fired up about Donald Trump’s attacks on Mayor Cruz.

“If I was @realDonaldTrump I would be in Puerto Rico to lead no more than 2 days after the disaster,” I tweeted. “If I was @realDonaldTrump I would not attack a leader that has worked non-stop for her people,” I wrote in another tweet, posting a photo of Cruz. In a third tweet, I said I would praise the volunteers, and in another I said I would stop attacking the media, if I were him. Finally, I suggested he should activate all the food trucks on the island, to create block-by-block kitchens and food delivery.

You didn’t need a federal bureaucracy to figure it out; you just needed to see what we were doing. Yes, it could look like I was trolling Trump. But my message was deadly serious: we needed real leadership from the White House, not a series of mean-spirited posts on social media. I thought about calling Ivanka Trump: I knew her and her brothers from several encounters, including the litigation around the hotel restaurant that I refused to open with them after their father’s comments about Mexican immigrants. I had great relationships with Republicans in the Bush White House and Democrats in the Obama White House. But this administration was different, and I felt disconnected from them.

My argument wasn’t with all federal officials. I was clear that I wanted to make things work with the military, with Homeland Security and with FEMA. These were the people who could get things done, and I still had high hopes for what FEMA in particular could do. I thought Brock Long, the FEMA administrator, struck the right note when he appeared on ABC’s This Week that Sunday morning. When George Stephanopoulos asked him about Mayor Cruz’s criticism, and Trump’s suggestion that Puerto Ricans were sitting back, he took a long time to clear his throat. “So the success of a disaster response is predicated on unity of command,” he said. “The bottom line is, we had a press conference from the joint field office in San Juan. That operation has hundreds of people in it working around the clock to set the strategic objectives. FEMA, DoD, the governor’s objectives. We have been working with mayors all around Puerto Rico to make sure we have a strategy.” Brock pointed out that Cruz had only been to the joint field office once. There are very few heroes in any disaster, and there are no perfect leaders. Cruz had flaws, and so did FEMA. Some of those flaws were obvious at the time: Cruz was better at appealing for help than managing logistics. Some of those flaws, especially at FEMA, would only fully emerge much later. For all their bureaucratic checks and balances, the agency was sloppy about its contracts and detached from reality. Still, they had the power to do a huge amount of good for people in desperate need, and I wanted to encourage them to do just that. Long told ABC News that they were making “slow progress” in Puerto Rico and that the island still had “a long way to go.” “I believe FEMA will make it happen,” I tweeted back at Long, after his interview.

None of those details would stop Trump from tweeting about what he considered to be a great success, at the same time as smearing anyone who dared to tell the truth about what was happening on the island. “We have done a great job with the almost impossible situation in Puerto Rico,” he wrote. “Outside of the Fake News or politically motivated ingrates, people are now starting to recognize the amazing work that has been done by FEMA and our great Military.” I had no problem recognizing the great work of some people at FEMA, as well as the military. But I could also see very clearly that the administration was not doing a great job. The situation, as we found it, was not “almost impossible” unless you were stuck inside a government bunker with no contacts, no expertise, no local knowledge, and no urgency or creativity about how to feed the people.

On our way back from Ponce, I felt the urgency of now. The situation was so bad in El Tuque that we needed to mobilize the entire private sector quickly. I called Ramón Leal to organize a meeting of business leaders at our hotel. With or without a FEMA contract, we couldn’t stop. I was barely eating myself, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the people who were drinking rainwater and going to bed hungry that night. The turnout at the hotel was impressive: even the Red Cross showed up. I told them about our plan to feed as many people as possible, and asked them to prioritize donations of food. If they could afford a cash donation, that was awesome too. But I needed to run the operation like a professional restaurant kitchen, and I needed their support. Among the business leaders was Rafael O’Ferrall, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, who was now general manager of Dade Paper Company in Puerto Rico. One of our biggest challenges was how to deliver food. Since we weren’t sure if we could get our hands on reusable plastic Cambros, we needed a huge supply of aluminum trays.

He took our plan seriously and we would never run out of trays for the weeks and months ahead, as we sent tens of thousands of trays packed with hot food across the island. After the meeting ended, I wanted to go to José Enrique’s restaurant to recharge. But my team was all gone, as they worked tirelessly to move our operations from the small pink restaurant to the giant concrete arena. They were exhausted but they never stopped working. We all were driven by the need to feed an island whose suffering we were still only beginning to understand. I went to the hotel rooftop and lit a cigar, accompanied only by the buzzing of the city’s air-conditioning units and generators. As I looked up to the stars, I began to cry. I thought the one star that was missing was the Puerto Rican star on the American flag.

Excerpted from We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time. José Andrés with Richard Wolffe, Anthony Bourdain/Ecco, 2018.

Credits: Andrés photo, Taylor Hill/FilmMagic. Andrea D’Aquino is a NYC-based illustrator.