In the aftermath of natural disasters, the Feeding America network of food banks unites to respond. Food banks provide product, equipment, and staff to meet the need for food and water in disaster-stricken regions.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in late September, leaving most of the island without power, clean water, and food. Two staff from the Greater Chicago Food Depository traveled to Puerto Rico to join the recovery effort. Angel La Luz, Senior Director of Human Resources, and Carlos Rodriguez, Food Resources Development Manager, spent the first two weeks of October there. They experienced the beginning of a long-term effort to rebuild and recover.
After nine days assisting hurricane relief efforts at Feeding South Florida, Carlos and Angel flew to San Juan. They then traveled to Bayamon, where Banco de Alimentos de Puerto Rico is located. “It was kind of a surreal experience,” Angel recalls. From trips to visit family there, he remembered Puerto Rico as a vibrant, colorful place. The hurricane and the floods that followed had destroyed much of the vegetation, leaving a brown landscape.
Months after the hurricane, Angel’s family in Puerto Rico is still without electricity. “My family are pretty lively, outgoing people. When I finally got to see them, they were just tired,” Angel recalls. “They’d been without water and without electricity since Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Maria was the knockout punch.”
Although the Banco de Alimentos facility was not damaged, the food bank’s staff were worn out from working long hours while reckoning with the disaster’s impact on their own homes and families. Carlos and Angel joined five staff from other Feeding America network food banks in Puerto Rico: they included staff from Long Island, New York; Cleveland; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Lincoln, Nebraska.
They also recall the dedication of local volunteers, including two high school students who showed up each day to help out.
“Everybody brought a different skill set, and nobody put any barriers on what they would do,” from managing volunteers to reorganizing production, Angel recalls.
Carlos worked in the warehouse, organizing product to distribute and tracking deliveries. Food and supplies arrived from the USDA and from Feeding America – including food items packed at the Food Depository. With limited storage space, planning and organizing were critical to meet the need. Carlos’ experience at the Food Depository helped him approach these challenges: “Things were moving so fast, you had to make decisions,” he says. They assembled disaster food boxes, turning over the contents of the warehouse as efficiently as possible.
“Every single day, you were tired, but you felt like you accomplished a heck of a lot – and you felt like you accomplished it as part of a team,” Carlos says.
Angel worked in the FEMA headquarters for the first several days. He coordinated with the food bank, answering the questions “what did we do, how much did we do, where did we do it” on a daily basis. This coordination ensured that all disaster response groups could work together to meet the need across the island.
Even after the hurricane, severe weather conditions created obstacles to recovery. Angel recalls visiting a food pantry to assess damages one day. The visit was cut short when heavy rain started to flood the surrounding roads. Travel times were long, and conditions were hazardous. In addition, limited electricity and phone service made communication difficult. For Angel, these challenges had a personal component: he worked with the food bank to coordinate a delivery to his wife’s 86-year-old aunt. She had very limited access to communication and was almost out of food and water when the delivery arrived.
Both Carlos and Angel take pride in the support they received from fellow food bank staff, both in Puerto Rico and back at the Food Depository. They agree that the response illustrates the power of the national network of food banks.
“We were there not as individuals, but as part of a broader response. We were there to ensure that people in need were able to get the services that they needed. It doesn’t get any more basic than food,” Angel says.
For him, the recovery effort brought to mind his service in the Army, with a critical mission to accomplish in a short time. But he’s encouraged to know that the response will continue.
“This recovery effort is going to be going on for quite some time to come,” says Angel. “You leave with some satisfaction, but with mixed feelings because you know there’s so much more that needs to be done. There’s still a team that’s going to continue the work that we started.”