ORCHSE Book Review: “We Fed an Island"

The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time

Bill Hoyle
February 14, 2019


Jose Andres is a DC-based celebrity chef who dedicates much of his time to disaster relief. His new book, “We Fed an Island”, focuses on his first-hand experience organizing an unprecedented food response campaign after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last year. The campaign prepared 3 million meals using 20,000 volunteers and involving 24 kitchens. Andres, a native of Spain, never graduated from high school, yet his insights into the failures of traditional disaster response systems and thinking provides valuable lessons for health and safety professionals.

Embracing complexity

“Andres observes that chefs are accustomed to dealing with chaos in the restaurant business, which makes them well-suited to address hunger in the aftermath of natural disasters. Increasingly, the severity of natural disasters exceeds the experience of response experts and organizations. Following established approaches is no match for dealing with unprecedented events. Andres explains that “what we did was embrace complexity every single second. Not planning, not meeting, just improvising.”

Sonja Schmid and other authors writing about the response to the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster also observed that improvisation is key to disaster response and future planning.  

Schmid’s valuable work for the National Science Foundation was published in 2016 in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Hunger and thirst are hard to see from aerial photos

Most of the images we saw in the media after Hurricane Maria focused on flooding, property damage and rescue activity. The urgent problem of hunger gets much less attention. “We need emergency feeding teams to enter these disaster zones within 24 hours, just as we have search-and-rescue teams… we need a network of Food First Responders,” Andres says.

The failure of most response agencies: a systems problem

Andres explains that “the system failed from top to bottom, at every level of government, from federal agencies to nonprofit charities. That’s not because there were bad people…there were many good people trying to do good things… but their thinking and their organization was all wrong…there is a kind of group thinking that leads to these systemic failures.” Andres goes on to say that the top-down approach used by FEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and others was “divorced from reality”.

Planners default to the top-down approach in part because they assume that most people impacted by disasters will panic and there will be rampant crime. In Puerto Rico, neighborhoods acted quickly to help their communities. There was virtually no looting. Emergency response planning should see people on the front lines as assets rather than being viewed only as liabilities.

Misuse of checklists

Andres quotes Dr. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, who said “I talk about Katrina because you saw two kinds of checklists in action…one is the kind of set of protocols that FEMA has in place, which was all about centralizing control…that dictated what people out at the periphery had to do, right down to their most nitty-gritty decisions. The thinking could not keep up with the scale of this disaster and its complexity… it was total failure.”

Gawande goes on to explain that in complex situations, you want to delegate power and decision-making as much as possible. This is also a core concept of High Reliability Organization thinking.

Continuing to feed displaced people

Jose Andres did not take a long vacation after his experience in Puerto Rico. More recently, he and his non-profit World Central Kitchen organization traveled to North Carolina to feed victims of Hurricane Florence. The group pledged to prepare 150,000 meals at two locations in the state.

Bill Hoyle

Bill Hoyle formerly served as subject matter expert and was a safety consultant with ORCHSE, an NSC workplace safety group.

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