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World Central Kitchen, the disaster relief group formed by famous chef Jose Andres, is already camped out and serving meals in North Carolina as Hurricane Florence approaches land.
Volunteers with the international organization team up with local chefs and kitchens and distribute meals to shelters. Between Raleigh and Wilmington, the organization is prepared to serve 150,000 meals, executive director Nate Mook said in an interview.
Mook said the sheer size of Hurricane Florence and its anticipated destruction drew the group to North Carolina. They arrived in Wilmington Tuesday and in Raleigh Wednesday and started serving meals Thursday.
“It was very clearly going to be a very large storm with the potential for a tremendous impact,” Mook said.
Andres, named one of Time’s Most Influential People, started World Central Kitchen in 2010 after a devastating earthquake in Haiti.
But the organization is likely best known for its work last year in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria, when Andres and a team of volunteers served millions of meals, staying on the island for weeks after the storm. The efforts in Puerto Rico led to Andres receiving the James Beard Award for Humanitarian of the Year earlier this year.
While the relief group has become somewhat famous for its response to disasters, this will be the first one it will experience itself. Instead of arriving after the storm, Mook said World Central Kitchen thought they would have greater control if they arrived before the floodwaters determined mobility.
“It’s something we learned from the challenges of Houston (and Hurricane Harvey),” Mook said. “Because of flooding, it was hard to get to some of the places that were most impacted.”
With the storm lapping at the coast, Thursday’s meals were largely served to first responders and any evacuees at nearby shelters. The bulk of the work will come once the rains come and go and the Carolinas will take its first stock of Hurricane Florence.
The Raleigh and Wilmington kitchens have backup generators and satellite phones and can serve between 25,000 and 40,000 meals per day. Backup kitchens are ready in Kinston, Jacksonville and Charleston, S.C., Mook said, but those have yet to be activated.
Mook said the group is in the state to bring the lessons it has learned from past disasters to scale them up for a large local response.
“We’re software not hardware,” Mook said. “This isn’t an outside savior coming in and fixing things. We work with local partners, local farmers and suppliers and vendors, like Sysco here. We have the capacity, experience, resources, but we’re reliant on working with local folks.
“You want to be able to support folks in the aftermath,” Mook said. “A lot of folks left Wilmington, but a lot of folks are still here. There are a lot of things to worry about, but if we can take the concern of food off of people’s plate, that’s what we’re here to do.”
California-based Chef Tim Kilcoyne is running the Raleigh outpost for World Central Kitchen. He guessed this is the seventh disaster he’s worked for the group, having responded to everything from volcanoes to wildfires.
“Obviously tomorrow is the day,” Kilcoyne said. “Right now we don’t know.”
Andres is currently on a tour promoting the release of his book “We Fed an Island,” recounting his work feeding Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Thursday and Friday he was booked on morning and evening talk shows from “CBS This Morning” to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
He also made headlines Thursday for criticizing President Trump on Twitter. Trump disputed the death toll in Puerto Rico, which the Puerto Rican government has reported as almost 3,000 people.
In response, Andres wrote on Twitter: “You are the face of”No shame”! That actually people died in the days, weeks and months after María, only shows how little you care. Those deaths happen on your watch.”
But immediately after that, Mook said Andres will be in North Carolina, likely by Saturday morning.
“He’s planning to be here, wherever the need is going to be,” Mook said.