Skip navigation
Flooding and devastation left behind by Hurricane Irma in Collier County, Fla.

Planning for a disaster

Three foodservice operations share their recent experiences with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and their tips for planning and implementing disaster plans.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, epic snowstorms, flooding and wildfires. It seems every time we turn around some part of the country is dealing with a natural disaster. 

When an event hits, non-commercial foodservice operations have to be prepared to serve their communities during their most dire times of need, oftentimes when foodservice associates themselves are dealing with personal damage and loss.

We share the stories of three foodservice operations that have recently endured Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as their tips for developing and implementing emergency disaster plans.

Collier County Public Schools, Collier County, Fla.

Dawn Houser is director of nutrition services for Collier County Public Schools, a district with 50 schools serving 47,000 students.

The district has created its own disaster plan since 2009, and it also meets with the municipal Emergency Operations Center for the purpose of schools being assigned as emergency shelters and receiving bottled water prior to a disaster.

Twenty nine of the 50 schools in Collier County were designated as shelters during Hurricane Irma. Pre-disaster, Houser and her team order the food to be delivered to the shelters and create a list of employees willing to man the shelters. Once the extent of need is determined, employees are contacted and assigned to shelter locations. Nutrition services plans for three days of meals to include breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

“I have been through multiple disasters, whether they were hurricanes, forest fires, bomb threats and [more],” says Houser. “In fact, all of the disasters I just listed occurred in this past school year. However, with all of the hurricanes I have gone through, [Irma] was by far the most devastating.”

One of the biggest challenges Houser cited was communication, due to no internet and cell service. In addition, the county experienced power, gas and water shortages as well as extremely hot and humid conditions. Food ordered for regular meal service at the schools was reassigned to shelters. 

Nutrition services served lunches at no charge through November because of the devastation. They are receiving reimbursement from USDA for all students to eat on free status during this period. 

The University of Miami

Michael Ross is resident district manager with Chartwells at the University of Miami and Meagan Clements is marketing director. They recently endured Hurricane Irma and both have experienced other disasters while living in other parts of the country. 

Chartwells came to the University of Miami in 1994, two years after Hurricane Andrew tore through south Florida. They work in conjunction with the university Emergency Management Team, which coordinates and leads all disaster planning across various university departments.

According to Clements, the main dining facilities did not sustain major damage but the rest of campus was devastated. The Monday following the storm it was estimated that 60 percent of campus roads and walkways were impassable. Campus was closed to the public and classes postponed so that a team of essential personnel could begin putting the campus back together.

By Tuesday morning one dining hall was already open and fully functional.

“Our primary objective is to ensure the safety and well-being of all students, faculty and staff on campus and guarantee that they remain well fed before, during and after the disaster,” says Ross. “Prior to a disaster, we bring MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) onto campus along with ample bottled water and fresh fruit, and we make sure all generators are connected and operational. We also stock food in house for post-disaster so we can reopen as soon as possible and feed anyone left on campus, including those responsible for bringing campus back online.”

“We have learned every disaster is different and emergency plans are just a guide,” says Ross. “Being able to be flexible and change direction at a moment’s notice is critical. Additionally, every student has different needs—including vegan, vegetarian, gluten intolerance, allergies—and it is important that even in times of disaster these needs are thought about and compensated for.”

“Following our hurricane plan prior to the storm ensured we were ready to open immediately and smoothly,” says Clements. “While movement throughout campus was restricted, our team set up a temporary office in the dining hall to make sure operations continued without interruption. The residential dining directors and chefs put together full hot menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner and had the salad bar and fresh fruit fully stocked. We ensured that a complete spectrum of allergy-friendly meals was available, including vegan and vegetarian dishes.”

(From left to right): Frank Colbourn, area manager of parking & logistics, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, Jae Hernandez, quality and safety, Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, and Salam Waqialla, manager of international services at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, help to serve food during Hurricane Harvey.

Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, Houston

Lyanna Han, RD, LD is director of food & nutrition services for Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston. Sodexo manages the foodservice operations for all inpatient dining, retail and catering within the 16-campus system. Their disaster plan is developed in conjunction with Memorial Hermann Healthcare System’s Emergency Management team.

Thankfully, the operation did not experience any damage from Hurricane Harvey, nor was there loss of power or water. Foodservice staffing was affected as travel to the medical center was unsafe, but they had sufficient personnel as well as access to the labor pool across campus to continue hot meal service for patients, visitors and staff. 

“The primary objective of the [disaster plan] is to provide nutritionally adequate meals for patients, visitors and staff during a disaster,” says Han. “Provision of care does not include feeding the community as it would strain our ability to properly provide for patients under our care.” 

Their plan includes special food orders predetermined by the equipment each campus has on emergency power, back-up refrigeration fueled by diesel-powered refrigeration trailers and trucks, identification of the employee who will ride out the event at the hospital and means to provide sleeping arrangements for employees riding out the event. The plan includes conducting annual reviews and mock drills to ensure preparedness.

Disaster Planning Tips

Create standing disaster orders with vendors

“Our disaster plan provisions include standing disaster orders with vendors to drop pre-determined amounts of supplies with a phone call,” says Han. Ross recommends taking into account your vendors’ restrictions and placing preorders for items you know you will need such as bottled water.

Stock a seven-day food supply
“Running out of food was one thing I did not worry about and appreciated why regulatory agencies require it as a part of standard operation,” says Han. She also cites stocking adequate supply of disposable wares as lack of water makes it tough to clean dishes. 

Evaluate simple logistics

A disaster event means even the simple things that can become problematic. Houser is purchasing battery-powered lanterns for every kitchen and establishing a locker that has a color-coded set of keys to the manager’s office, walk-in refrigerators and freezers and dry storage room.

Conduct regular drills

Han suggests revisiting your disaster plan on a regular basis to validate its appropriateness for various disaster scenarios. Test out your plan with drills.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Han stresses the importance of team meetings and calls prior to an event to ensure readiness. Throughout the disaster, Ross highlights the importance of staying in constant communication with your client and staff. “Remembering that your team is your family, and community is paramount in times of disaster will help to ensure a quick re-opening,” he says.

Be on site as soon as possible

According to Ross, this allows you to evaluate the damage and tailor your plan specifically to the situation, facilitating recovery and reopening.

Focus on community and hospitality

“The foodservice program is essential to a community being able to rebuild after a disaster,” says Houser. “It brings some sense of normalcy back to an area ravaged by storms or fires. It is critical to the health and well-being of the community because many of these people lose everything!” Clements adds, “When people are coming from their homes—which may be destroyed or at the very least without power—a smile and genuine conversation can do a lot to motivate people and lift their spirits. Anyone can prepare delicious food, but going the extra mile to be kind and amiable can really make a difference.”

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.