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  1. Local Weather

Critical need after the storm? Feeding those in need

Feeding those in need before, during and in the aftermath of a storm like Irma is complicated business. More than 585 shelters opened in the state of Florida in the past few days, with more than 200,000 people housed and fed. Many more people than that have found themselves without power or access to adequate food and clean drinking water.

The state's Emergency Operations Center coordinates the response, but there are other agencies and charities involved, intricate public-private collaborations, and many independent folks who step up to the plate and feed people on their own.

"All emergencies start with a local need that has been overwhelmed," says Geoff Luebkemann, vice president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, which is part of the state's emergency response team. He explains there are 18 emergency support function units within the EOC that work in tandem.

"The way that a need would be identified and ultimately met is that a local point of contact would say, 'we have a shelter at ABC High School and we need meals for 500 people,' " Luebkemann said. If that need is unable to be met at the local level, the "business, industry and economic stabilization" support function unit uses its network to identify assistance.

But how are those needs identified? As is increasingly the case in our culture, it's via cellphones and social media.

Lynne Hernandez, the South Florida regional director of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said in advance of Irma the organization reached out to key players in the restaurant industry so that when they got calls that some of the shelters were running out of food they had suppliers lined up with food to deliver to restaurants, where it was prepared and then delivered to shelters. It doesn't always work seamlessly.

"I'm pretty concerned," she said Monday morning by phone in her car in Miami, out for the first time post-storm and looking for bleach. "It's horrible, I can't believe the number of trees that are down; we had at least 120 mph winds. I think communication is the real challenge. As more people come out, we will see where the needs will be. We are on hold until we hear from the Keys. Without cell service it's been hard to communicate. With U.S. 1 not passable, I honestly don't know. If we need to take boats down there, we will do whatever is needed."

Irma is not unique. Dutch Small, a Houstonian who does public relations for hospitality and entertainment businesses, got a phone call the Monday after Hurricane Harvey. It was from a hospital saying they desperately needed 2,000 meals.

"That was my first awareness that . . . the Red Cross, Salvation Army, city and state were not equipped."

From a hotel room in Atlanta he began coordinating with Houston hospitality industry friends, starting a Facebook group. They fed 300,000 people in 10 days, collaborating on a Google document that outlines how to mobilize and identify box trucks and refrigerated trucks, generators, big commercial kitchens to serve as central hubs and "professional chefs, restaurateurs, and industry folks who will stand up and work together."

In advance of Hurricane Irma, Small and Richard Knight created Florida Food Service Workers Hurricane Relief, enlisting the help of restaurant industry people across the state and sharing knowledge. Greg Baker (the Refinery, Fodder & Shine) and other Tampa Bay chefs began communicating and strategizing.

Even with the resources of social media, sometimes people willing to donate can't quite connect with those in need. Jan Costa, director of Florida Fresh Meat Company in Ocala, put out the word on the group's Facebook page that he had meats ready to donate. No takers so far.

"I've got freezers down and I'd rather cook up the food and feed people with it. I don't have the resources to cook it, but I've got the meat. We can load it into our coolers and deliver it."

Ergin Tek, who owns Gengiz Khan restaurant, started prepping 10,000 meals last Tuesday and made a Facebook page to let people know he was opening Gengiz Khan as a shelter.

"I got so many requests, it was in the thousands," he said.

Tek said he housed 150 people in the restaurant, from a 39-week pregnant woman to the very elderly in wheelchairs, serving lunch and dinner. One whole room of the restaurant was reserved for dogs and cats, 20 of the former and 30 of the latter.

"I've lived in South Tampa for 18 years and it has supported me in good days and bad days." he said. "I wanted to give back."

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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