Until you’ve seen an American Red Cross major disaster feeding operation in action, it’s difficult to imagine the enormity of the process — the dozens of moving parts and multitude of decisions needed to provide relief as quickly as possible.
Hurricane Ian struck Florida on September 28, 2022, causing widespread flooding across the state. Most of those who watched the Red Cross in action immediately after the hurricane assumed operations had begun after the storm. In fact, the disaster operation officially began five days before landfall, and the planning and positioning of resources had been in full swing two weeks prior to that as teams carefully monitored weather forecasts. The Red Cross was ready before the hurricane made landfall, poised to respond immediately.
It’s been weeks since Hurricane Ian made landfall. Most assume the Red Cross has closed the kitchens, returned the emergency response vehicles to their local chapters across America, and ended all feeding operations. But two dozen food trucks are still distributing thousands of meals across recovering neighborhoods, and hundreds of meals are still being provided each day for residents who remain in shelters. The Red Cross is still providing support to the thousands impacted by Ian.
Feeding those affected by disaster, both immediately and during recovery, is a core mission of the Red Cross and the magnitude of these efforts is staggering. Since the disaster began, the Red Cross and our partners have provided nearly 1.7 million meals and snacks, and more than 34,000 total households have been served.
These numbers are almost beyond comprehension, but statistics don’t tell the whole story. Red Cross feeding operations are multi-faceted sagas of hard work, intentional planning and flexibility as conditions change. The successful preparation and delivery of thousands of meals and snacks each day to those affected by disaster — necessary comfort in time of great need — is tribute to the Red Cross volunteers who deliver the services and to the donors who make it possible.
PRE-LANDFALL PREPARATIONS Tom Shannon, fulfillment chief for this Red Cross disaster operation, and his team were operating at full capacity for days before Hurricane Ian made landfall. Working virtually from his office, he coordinated the pre-positioning of mass quantities of food supplies and other disaster-related relief materials, and then arrived at the Florida command center in anticipation of the hurricane.
The day before the hurricane swept across the state Shannon said, “We’ve been on the ground for three days now, finalizing preparations, particularly in materials, service provisioning, for our operations. The biggest thing we’re going to be focusing on post-impact of the storm is definitely feeding plans and the operational needs to distribute to the community, so we have about 80 vehicles coming down this way.”
Typically, feeding trucks are positioned across the country at local Red Cross chapters for use in regional responses, then driven to major disasters by volunteers when needed. At the peak of relief operatins for Hurricane Ian, more than 125 trucks were delivering food to shelters and the hardest hit neighborhoods in Florida.
Shannon’s objectives were clear: “Can we get materials to the ground quickly? Can we get there before the storm? Can we get there as soon as we know, to be ready, to be prepared, to help the community around here?”
With all of the necessary supplies positioned in place across the state, the Red Cross was ready to jump into action immediately following the storm. The smaller initial team of food truck drivers who had arrived in advance of the storm began distributing immediate assistance within hours, and hundreds of Red Cross volunteers who had been waiting on standby across multiple states began arriving to expand capacity. Within 24 hours after the storm, the massive feeding operation that would continue for weeks was in full swing.
SUSTAINING FEEDING OPERATIONS It’s been weeks since the beginning of the disaster and each day, while the rest of the world sleeps, Red Cross feeding teams are awake before the sun comes up. Working closely with BRG Disaster Solutions of New Orleans, Louisiana, one of a number of Red Cross food preparation partners, Red Cross leaders anticipate the daily needs of shelters and mobile feeding operations to plan each day’s activities. BRG is one of the last partner kitchens operating, providing approximately 4,000 to 6,000 meals every day for Red Cross volunteers to deliver.
“Everything is done by routine,” said BRG manager Danny Blue, who has worked with the Red Cross for about three years. “Our day starts at 3:00 a.m. with cleaning, setting up and cooking for lunch, which is normally done by 8:30 a.m. Our team loads up the food trucks by 10:00 a.m. so they can head out to make their deliveries. After lunch has gone out, we clean up and start the process over for dinner, which is normally out for delivery by 2:00 p.m., and the kitchen closes by 4 p.m.”
From the kitchen to the community, distributing these meals would be impossible without the hard work of hundreds of volunteers. At the kitchen site, long lines of trucks are loaded with hot meals to be distributed to shelters and neighborhoods where families are struggling to clean up and get back on their feet after Ian.
“It’s a simple job, really,” said Andy Aerensen, a Red Cross kitchen manager, who supervises the loading process. “We do three things: we feed people in need, we do it safely, and we have fun while we do it.”
Each food truck is staffed by two or three volunteers. Large food containers filled with hot meals are loaded into the vehicles, along with cold drinks, containers and utensils. Each vehicle carries enough food to put together between 100 and 500 meals, depending on the route.
Laura Farr, a first-time Red Cross volunteer soon discovered that delivering hot meals to people affected by disasters is a life-changing experience. “I see smiles, I see people’s eyes light up. I see shock — it’s just everything. It’s very emotional. Even if it’s just a can of water, they didn’t have it and they need it,” she said. “It’s almost a rescue feeling, like you feel that you saved the day, if for just a moment. It’s something so small, but I’m starting to realize how small things matter.”
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED The mission of the Red Cross is to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of disaster by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors. But that task isn’t accomplished by accident. It takes foresight, strategic planning, and the execution of a well-laid plan. Providing food to those impacted by disaster immediately following the event is a critical component of successful service delivery.
From when Hurricane Ian was hundreds of miles away, to the moment it struck the Florida coast, to weeks later as recovery efforts continue, the Red Cross is there.
With the help of our partners, the Red Cross has provided nearly 1.7 million meals and snacks across an immense footprint of devastation. Without this assistance, tens of thousands of households would have nowhere to turn. Because of the dedicated efforts of our volunteers and the support of our generous donors and partners, the American Red Cross is making a difference in the lives of thousands of people facing desperate circumstances.