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I volunteered with World Central Kitchen to help hurricane victims. You can too.

The organization started by chef José Andrés is making hot meals for those affected by Hurricane Ian.
Staff and volunteers working with the relief organization World Central Kitchen have delivered tens of thousands of meals to communities impacted by Hurricane Ian in the days following the storm.
Staff and volunteers working with the relief organization World Central Kitchen have delivered tens of thousands of meals to communities impacted by Hurricane Ian in the days following the storm. [ Courtesy of World Central Kitchen ]
Published Oct. 1|Updated Oct. 1

PORT CHARLOTTE — In the parking lot of Walmart Supercenter, a woman walked barefoot, having lost her sandals, hoping to feed her family of six. Another woman pointed out a bulging scar on her stomach from surgery she had undergone last week, worried she had developed an abscess with no access to medical care. There was a man with a head wound and a man with a limp arm hanging from his side, clearly broken and turning a deep shade of purple.

They were looking for food and water, and World Central Kitchen was there to deliver.

Along with organizations like Feeding Tampa Bay and Metropolitan Ministries, World Central Kitchen is in our region for the first time to help those impacted by Hurricane Ian’s wrath. The organization was founded by chef José Andrés in 2010 and has gone on to become one of the world’s most recognized first-response efforts, delivering hot meals to the frontlines during humanitarian, climate and community crises. With the help of local volunteers and partner organizations — including restaurant owners, food truck operators and catering companies — the group manages to distribute tens of thousands of meals a day to communities in need.

In the wake of mind-bending catastrophes like the one that just walloped our neighbors to the south, many are looking for a way to help. People need clothes, building materials, tarps, blankets and baby formula. They need ice and they need water. They really would like some hot food.

Looking for a way to help, I signed up for a volunteer shift.

On Friday morning, I made my way down to Port Charlotte, the trunk of my Subaru Forester stacked with pallets of bottled water. I’ve lived near the Gulf of Mexico for 10 years now, so this isn’t, unfortunately, new to me. I‘ve covered storms and tornadoes in New Orleans, volunteered with food banks in the wake of catastrophic flooding in Louisiana and gutted houses in southeast Texas after Hurricane Harvey. The need for help in those cases was always poignant, acute and heartbreaking.

What I saw this week was worse.

The route to the Port Charlotte Walmart, where one of the World Central Kitchen distribution points is set up, was harrowing enough: An exit ramp off I-75 completely submerged. Shattered street lamps littering the road with glass. Rows of palm trees bent back in unnatural angles, as if frozen in time. Entire mobile home parks destroyed.

Everywhere you look, so much water.

World Central Kitchen’s effort in Florida is structured similarly to other missions the group has underway across the globe. Currently set up inside the kitchen at Tampa’s Metropolitan Ministries, a team of roughly 25 World Central Kitchen chefs works constantly to crank out 15,000 cold meals and 10,000 hot meals a day for as long as they’re needed. The team is joined by dozens of volunteers from around the state.

People line up for hot meals at a Port Charlotte Walmart's parking lot, one of the World Central Kitchen distribution sites in southwest Florida.
People line up for hot meals at a Port Charlotte Walmart's parking lot, one of the World Central Kitchen distribution sites in southwest Florida. [ Courtesy of World Central Kitchen ]

So far, roughly 15 Tampa Bay restaurants have signed on. The organization also has tapped food trucks and restaurant partners from the Miami area. Kitchen experience helps, but you don’t have to be a chef to volunteer.

Delivering healthy, hot and balanced meals is the cornerstone of the operation — and, because the effort is chef-driven, food that also tastes really good. On Thursday, chefs cooked portions of pasta bolognese and salads with cucumbers and tomatoes. On Friday, I helped serve plates of yellow rice with chicken and cheese, studded with peas and broccoli. There were ham sandwiches, Red Delicious apples and bottles of water to hand out.

Disaster relief is physical work. It is both much harder than you expect and more humbling.

But relief work is not just about delivering aid. It’s about listening to people. Everyone is looking for ice, gas and water. Everyone wants to know when FEMA will arrive.

And everyone has a story. About how the water came too fast, and the warnings too late. About stubborn relatives who refused to evacuate. About missing family members and cell phones gone dead, searches underway without a working power grid.

For many of the people I spoke with on Friday, Ian wasn’t their first experience with a hurricane. Some had lived through Charley and Irma.

“Charley had nothing on this,” said a woman wearing a hat emblazoned with a rhinestone American flag. “I lost my house back then, but this was way worse.”

“It’s like watching one of those disaster movies, except you’re in the movie and people are watching you,” another woman added.

Despite the heartbreak, there was a staggering level of gratitude. Some people lost just part of their roof, and not their entire house. Some lost their home, but not their family. Many were grateful for a hot meal and the kindness of strangers.

Even those who had lost so much still wanted to help. People living nearby raided what was left in their cabinets, dropping off coffee and dog food, canned soup and tomatoes. Some wielded what little cash they had left and asked if they could leave donations. A woman at Walmart wheeled over a shopping cart full of birthday cakes. People jumped out of food lines to help cart over heavy hot boxes full of food and pallets of water.

Employees and volunteers with World Central Kitchen worked out of a kitchen at Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries before delivering hot meals via helicopter, boat and road transport to communities in southwest Florida affected by the storm.
Employees and volunteers with World Central Kitchen worked out of a kitchen at Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries before delivering hot meals via helicopter, boat and road transport to communities in southwest Florida affected by the storm. [ Courtesy of World Central Kitchen ]

The staff from World Central Kitchen were some of the kindest, hardest-working people I have ever met. One of the chefs just left western Alaska, where he was responding to communities still reeling from the effects of a catastrophic typhoon. Before that, he spent more than a month in Ukraine, and prior to that, he delivered meals to the victims of this summer’s Kentucky floods. He guessed he hadn’t spent more than five nights in his own bed the past few months.

In the first two days since World Central Kitchen hit the ground, the group served more than 45,000 hot meals and 14,000 sandwiches to victims of the storm. Aid workers reached stricken communities cut off from road access by helicopter and by boat. And dozens of transport vehicles, including fully loaded U-Haul trucks, delivered food and water to multiple access points, from Port Charlotte down to Fort Myers.

The organizers at World Central Kitchen estimate they’ll be here for a while. The need isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I hope to return and volunteer more, when my schedule allows. I suggest others do the same.

Volunteers interested in volunteering with World Central Kitchen can sign up on the organization’s website. Looking for other ways to help? Check out our list of resources and aid organizations to donate to, here.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Hurricane Ian coverage

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

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.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen quickly after Hurricane Ian passes? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Get ready and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

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