Lessons learned about crisis maps from “We Fed an Island”

Just before he got thrown out by four armed guards, José Andrés knelt down on the floor of the San Juan Arena with his maps, trying to convince an official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency of his plan. In 21 days, he could feed the hungry people of the island following Hurricane Maria.

Whether with ham and cheese sandwiches on fresh bread or steaming plates of chicken and rice, Chef Andrés was determined to offer his fellow U.S. citizens something better than indigestible army rations. And the maps were how he was going to get there.

Sure, Andrés had slid in through a back door to the temporary FEMA headquarters. He had no affiliation with a government agency. He didn’t hold credentials from a charitable organization. His World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit launched in 2011 after helping Haiti earthquake victims, wasn’t there in any official capacity. He’d taken a commercial flight over, hoping to help. But the Michelin-starred, self-described “loud-mouth chef” wouldn’t be stopped.

“I felt the security guards bearing down on me…Nate walked over but they yelled at him to stay back, and the grip on their guns tightened… Some FEMA staff recognized me as we left and thanked me for my work. At least we were leaving through the front door, I thought.”

This is just one film-worthy scene from “We Fed an Island,” [public library] part memoir, part gourmet vs. Goliath tale about how Andrés soldiered on, preparing and delivering some 3,000,000 meals in the months after the event, despite the challenges of geography and bureaucrats.

It’s a page-turner for anyone interested in the changing world of disaster response and an unflinching look at how governments and NGOs get things done in a crisis — or not. (Side note: He’s a got such a strong voice that the audio version provides a few laugh-out-loud moments, including a personalized version of “Voy subiendo, voy bajando” the popular Puerto Rican street song emblematic of the ups-and-downs of a crisis situation.)

Here are a couple of excerpts that underline the importance of resiliency mapping. Who knows what his journey would’ve been like if locals had accurate maps that could be accessed offline and updated to reflect road outages and landslides. Instead, it’s testament to his dexterity in a crisis that he was able to get good maps — often only digital versions — and do what he could with them.

  • “I started talking to the mapping guys …They were running out of ink for their maps and I promised them I would try to get some new supplies for them…I’m going to be feeding 100,000 people a day—maybe more,” I told them, to help them imagine the scale and detail of maps that I’d need.”
  • “Thanks to my friends in the Army Corps of Engineers I even had a digital version of the map. It could have been so useful for everyone responding to the crisis, as an updated picture of all the resources and needs on the island. In my brain, this was a prototype for future disasters. If only people could get behind this project and what we were doing. Instead, I didn’t have FEMA credentials and could only get a temporary password to see the digital map.”
  • “My dream was to get an overview of the island—a comprehensive summary of every area of need, showing every bridge that was down, every gas station that was open or closed and every community that needed most help. It was only with that kind of information that we would be able to locate our kitchens, or target our deliveries, in the right parts of the island at the right time.”
  • “For good measure, we had on display an MRE in its brown plastic bag, as well as a typical meal from other NGOs: a bag of chips and an apple. I made sure my map was also on display, so people could see the full extent of our operations.”
  • “ Imagine what we could do with the right technology: with digital maps showing in real time where food is needed and getting delivered. Imagine if we could do the same with medicines, seeing where drugs are stored and needed, like a digital pharmacy.”
  • “The map was so much more than a piece of paper. You know what the map really became for me? A way to show that I wasn’t crazy. The map meant I wasn’t just a crazy chef who wanted to open 18 kitchens. I could walk people through every step of the plan, through everything we had built and delivered, through every region and town that needed help. I was showing that all those activations of kitchens had a footprint. ”

Excerpts from José Andrés “We Fed an Island” [public library].

unsplash-logoAndrew Neel

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