By Richard Leong
NEWYORK (Reuters) – Award-winning chef José Andrés this week laid out his personal account of feeding citizens in Puerto Rico whose lives were ravaged by Hurricane Maria a year ago, amid renewed debate over the government’s relief efforts on the U.S. island territory.
Food relief in the Caribbean is familiar ground for Andrés, 49, a Michelin-starred chef praised for his cutting-edge cuisine. His World Central Kitchen charitable operation has been active in Haiti in response to the deadly earthquake that shook that island in 2010.
Andrés’ book “We Fed an Island,” co-authored with Richard Wolffe, chronicles the scramble for food and water and working kitchens to feed Puerto Ricans who could not leave.
“Food was giving hope and the stability to one community at a time,” the Spanish-born chef told Reuters during a book tour.
President Donald Trump, facing criticism of his administration’s Puerto Rico relief effort as Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas, tweeted on Wednesday that the government “did an unappreciated great job in Puerto Rico, even though an inaccessible island with very poor electricity…”
Armed with the experience of serving three million meals in Puerto Rico, Andrés said he and his team will do the same for residents in the Carolinas, where Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday.
“What I know is whatever that’s needed, we are ready,” he said.
Puerto Rico was struck by the most powerful storm in almost a century on Sept. 17, 2017.
The death toll from Maria is estimated to have reached nearly 3,000 and has cost $90 billion (68.6 billion pounds). It also left much of the island without electricity for months.
Andrés flew to San Juan less a week after Maria hit. He quickly developed a feeding plan with friends and local chefs. They travelled daily to secure supplies to make sandwiches and prepare sancocho, a meat and vegetable soup.
They eventually were serving 100,000 meals a day across the island.
Besides less-than-ideal cooking conditions, Andrés was pushing back against red tape and what local officials and critics have perceived as inadequate federal response to Maria.
“When I tweeted that the federal government was letting Puerto Ricans down and leaving them to die, those are real calls for help. Those are real calls for actions,” he said.
Trump this week disputed Puerto Rico’s death toll, tweeting: “3000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico. When I left the Island, AFTER the storm had hit, they had anywhere from 6 to 18 deaths.”
While Andrés has criticized government leadership in rebuilding Puerto Rico, he said he received plenty of support from members of the Navy, National Guard and Department of Homeland Security on the ground.
“I’m not in the government. People like me should be speaking up,” Andrés said.
(This version of fixes typo in first paragraph.)
(Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Dan Grebler)