TAMPA — Early Thursday morning, just as first responders began to assess the catastrophic damage inflicted by Hurricane Ian, a team of chefs packed 5,000 meals to-go and hit the road, driving south.
They would drive to wherever they could get to that day — wherever the need was greatest: Fort Myers Beach or Naples, Venice or Port Charlotte, Cape Coral or Punta Gorda.
Judging by the scope of the storm’s impact, they would plan on staying for a while.
“We expect this to be a long-term response,” said Fiona Donovan, the director of relief operations for the Washington D.C.-based organization World Central Kitchen. “The situation here is bad and it’s definitely going to be a significant impact.”
On Thursday, chefs heading to Fort Myers and Cape Coral delivered thousands of plates of pasta bolognese; salads with cucumbers and tomatoes; and ham and cheese sandwiches, served with fruit and water. The program aims to deliver healthy, fresh, hot, balanced meals and Donovan said the menu will change daily, “based on the cultural preferences of where we’re serving.”
“We’re taking it a day at a time,” Donovan said. “Today is really about identifying where the needs are, where the gaps are and where we can really offer our support.”
Donovan and her team arrived in Tampa on Sunday to get a jumpstart on relief operations ahead of the storm. With Hurricane Ian’s unpredictable path, Tampa seemed like the best bet. Along with four semi-trucks loaded with food and water, the group is using Metropolitan Ministries’ commercial kitchen as their main distribution hub.
Donovan said they will likely scale up operations, adding a commissary kitchen base further south, depending on how the next few days go. But for now, the team will continue to work with Tampa as their home base, delivering tens of thousands of meals daily to the areas and communities hit hardest by the storm.
The organization, spearheaded by celebrated chef José Andres, has become one of the world’s most recognized first-response efforts, delivering hot meals to the frontlines in response to humanitarian, climate or community crisis situations. With the help of volunteers and partner organizations — including local chefs, food truck operators and catering companies — the group can deliver thousands of meals in a day to those in need.
In the following days, the team of roughly 20 to 25 World Central Kitchen chefs will be joined by a group of Tampa Bay chefs and volunteers to aid in the effort. They aim to crank out 15,000 cold meals and 10,000 hot meals each day.
So far, roughly 15 Tampa Bay restaurants have signed onto the effort, and more are expected to follow suit. The organization has also tapped several food trucks and restaurant partners from the Miami area. Volunteers are able to sign up for daily shifts through the World Central Kitchen website.
It’s the first time the organization has landed in Tampa, but it’s not its first foray into Florida: In 2018, World Central Kitchen’s Chef Relief Team worked out of the Bay County Emergency Operations center in Panama City to deliver hundreds of thousands of meals to the victims of Hurricane Michael.
The summer of 2022 has been a busy one for the non-profit, which still has relief operations underway for Hurricane Fiona and has set up disaster response teams in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Bermuda and Canada. The organization also has projects underway in Ukraine and Pakistan.
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Tampa Bay Times Hurricane coverage
TAMPA BAY CLOSURES: What to know about bridges, roads in Ian’s aftermath
WHEN THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.
POST-STORM QUESTIONS: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help with fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.
WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to slam Tampa Bay head on. What happened?
WHAT TO DO IF HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.
IT’S STORM SEASON: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.