Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated areas of the Caribbean and Florida, arguably made their most substantial impact on Puerto Rico, which to date still does not have reliable electrification and is sorely in need of other basis utilities and functionality. The aftermath was a second disaster, with an uneven US Government response
In February 2018, the Government Accountability Office issued an assessment of the US Government response that seemed to grade it as effective based on contract awards, but did not look at impact on the ground. Report: https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/690425.pdf. For instance, also in February 2018, the New York Times reported that a FEMA contract was awarded for 30 million meals, but the contractor only delivered 50,000 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/us/fema-contract-puerto-rico.html). A company that was contracted to perform repairs to the electrical grid had its $300 million contract cancelled while its work was underway because of political concerns that the company had only two employees and its president was a close associate of the Secretary of the Interior. Even aid that did make it to Puerto Rico was failing to make it out of the ports in the weeks after the disaster (https://www.cnn.com/2017/09/27/us/puerto-rico-aid-problem/index.html) due to impassable roads, a shortage of truckers, and other logistical challenges that were not being well-coordinated by a central disaster team with federal support.
At the same time, celebrity chef José Andrés brought his World Central Kitchen (https://www.worldcentralkitchen.org/what-we-do) into action and, according to their website: “To date, World Central Kitchen has served over 2 million meals in over 70 locations across Puerto Rico.” Much of the media coverage of this organization’s efforts focused on the fact that it was done as a purely private sector initiative. Indeed, there is some coverage the indicates that Andrés took the lead and had government officials support him (not the other way around). The organization has been around since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but the Puerto Rico disaster has given it a much higher profile. This comes at the intersection of a number of mixed sentiments in the US: (1) that the US Government was ineffective in disaster response; (2) that Puerto Rico is a part of the US and the response should have been more akin to one in Texas or Florida; (3) that Puerto Rico – in the wake of financial insolvency – is administered by a failed government. This comes at a time when political changes are highlighting distrust of government and the plentiful examples of failed disaster response reinforce that distrust.
To see a private citizen eschew the chaos of government and directly start feeding hungry people is a stark contrast and easily appeals to Americans. It will be interesting to see if this has longer-term implications for American non-profits engaged in similar disaster relief efforts. Will they avoid US Government contracting and instead lean more toward private sector supporters who impose less bureaucracy but expect faster results? It will also be interesting to see if the US Government changes its approach to disaster relief in any substantive way. Will they create faster contracting mechanisms that allow them to recognize entities like World Central Kitchen and shift funds to support what it working on the ground?