Just 24 hours after Hurricane Dorian devastated Great Abaco, Ingrid Hoffmann touched down in the town of Marsh Harbour. While the storm was still wreaking havoc in the Bahamas, she was already calling friends and raising money for relief efforts.
The petite 54-year-old chef and Food Network star had conducted relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ravaged it, and she felt prepared for the aftermath in the Bahamas. What she encountered, though, seemed more like hell than an island paradise. "The only airport employee was a barefoot man holding a machete," she says.
Hoffmann, along with a group of doctors from Cleveland Clinic Hospital, piled into a car borrowed from a resident and searched for survivors amid the wreckage. She describes two guards spray-painting the number of bodies found inside each house. "You could smell them," she remembers. The resilient chef, however, nearly broke down when she found a child's toy. "I stumbled on this teddy bear in the middle of the road. A teddy bear. I just thought, No matter how tired I am, I have to keep going because there are children out there."
September 1, Dorian made landfall as a Category 5 hurricane in the northern Bahamas. The storm brought sustained winds of up to 185 mph and storm surges as high as 23 feet. The sluggish but deadly hurricane refused to budge, hovering over the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama for more than 40 hours before finally heading up the Eastern Seaboard. There are at least 50 reported deaths so far, but that count is suspected to be much higher — 2,500 people remain missing — and 70,000 residents have lost their homes and businesses.
First responders and military personnel from nations near and far have answered the call for help. New Times food critic Zachary Fagenson was recently in Marsh Harbour and recalls seeing the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Dutch Marines, along with the U.S. military. "Marsh Harbour's airport is filled with every piece of military equipment you can imagine," he says. "There are cargo planes coming in and transport helicopters. It's literally like a war zone."
Charities large and small are raising funds and gathering supplies, but Hoffmann — who has boots on the ground — warns that larger organizations might be the slowest to get results. "One thing I learned after Hurricane Maria is that organizations have so many layers that by the time they can do something, the situation is dire." Hoffmann coordinated with Acute Air Ambulance in Florida, which helped her procure specially equipped air ambulances. She also obtained small planes from Aitheras Aviation Group, whose owner, George Katsikas, turned down lucrative charters to help Hoffmann get a team of volunteer medics from Cleveland Clinic in the air. "It was much easier to get permits and pass through red tape with these small charters than if I were to focus on bigger planes," she says.
So far, Hoffmann has raised nearly $88,000 through GoFundMe and has rescued 220 patients from Marsh Harbour, Treasure Cay, and Freeport. She describes parents asking her to get their children out — essentially making the heart-wrenching decision to allow strangers to whisk their kids to safety rather than let them languish in their now-demolished homes without electricity or infrastructure. "We took these kids to Nassau because family members said, 'Just take them out of here,'" Hoffmann says. She recalls flying with the children and keeping an eye on one small girl. "She was my main concern. She was so tiny and so alone." Once they touched down, the Bahamian organization HeadKnowles got to work organizing a network of women from neighboring churches to take in the children. Says Hoffmann: "I am 1,000 percent confident that what our mission was, was exactly what was needed at that moment."
In Nassau, only 133 miles from Grand Bahama, things are status quo. Cruise ships continue to port, the straw market is open, and tourists do shots at Señor Frogs. Just off the coast, in the Paradise Island Convention Center's kitchen, Karla Hoyos is assembling thousands of sandwiches in a precise manner. The chef de cuisine at the Bazaar by José Andrés says her boss requires that the same care be put into these sandwiches as in the chic meals she prepares at his tony South Beach eatery. "Chef Andrés will literally come to the kitchen and check the sandwiches to make sure there's enough meat and mayonnaise on them," Hoyos says of his Bahamas relief operation. "He's concerned that these have to be the best sandwiches these people have ever eaten."
Hoyos, along with a host of volunteers who prepare about 10,000 hot meals and about 6,000 sandwiches a day, has flown to Nassau to work with Andres' World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit he founded in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. Hoyos has trained with a dietitian to ensure each meal is designed to be high in fat and protein. The hot meals begin with a carbohydrate base and then are topped with meat and vegetables. They also have to be worthy of José Andrés' name. Hoyos describes Andrés walking into the kitchen and declaring the chicken pieces too small. "He said, 'My God, that's not enough food. This might be the only meal someone eats today.' The meals have to be not only nutritious but amazing."
The chef de cuisine arrived in Nassau about a day after the storm. She describes a back-breaking schedule of cooking for around 14 hours and then discussing logistics with Andrés and the rest of the World Central Kitchen team. She's assisted by an ever-rotating group of volunteers, ranging from helpful locals to celebrity chefs who fly in to do what they can. "Oh, my God, we've had such amazing help," she says.
Behind the operation is Andrés, whose main job is handling the difficulties arising in how to get the food to the people who need it most. Cooking is the easy part, Hoyos says. The hard part is organizing the transport of the meals. "He's so energized about this," she says. "I don't know how he does all of this. He's so worried about the food. He's just trying to help as many people as he can." So far, World Central Kitchen has served about 100,000 meals in the Bahamas, and the operation shows no signs of slowing down. Hoyos plans to stay as long as it takes. "It think it's going to be a while before we can say we've done all we can do."
The operation is working, according New Times' Fagenson, who has seen the World Central Kitchen logo throughout Marsh Harbour. "They're doing drops all over the island," he says of the nonprofit, whose mission is to provide meals following natural disasters. "They're at the airport; they're at the health clinic; they're at the government center." He describes the meals he's seen: "One day, there was beef stew over mashed potatoes; another day, it was crispy chicken on rice." He says the meals are also served to the Royal Marines and first responders, who also need fuel for their missions. "They're feeding everybody," he says of World Central Kitchen.
Back in Miami, Ingrid Hoffmann is exhausted. She says she returned home from the Bahamas at 3 a.m., only to head back to customs three hours later to secure clearance for four rescued dogs. She says she plans to take a few days off to sleep and regroup. A half-hour later, she calls again. Choking back tears, she says one of the dogs — a goldendoodle — is the same one depicted in a viral photo of a young woman, chest-deep in choppy floodwaters, holding two dogs to prevent them from drowning. She says that the woman and the dogs are safe and that she's now planning more rescue missions. "This is what it's about. This is when it becomes addictive," Hoffmann says. "How can I rest when there's so much more to do?"
Additional reporting by Zachary Fagenson.