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Harvey Tests the Limits of How We Feed People During Disasters

Empty shelves are just the beginning.
Shoppers wait in line for last minute supplies at a grocery store after Tropical Storm Harvey inundated the Texas Gulf coast with rain.
Shoppers wait in line for last minute supplies at a grocery store after Tropical Storm Harvey inundated the Texas Gulf coast with rain.Nick Oxford/Reuters

Each hurricane season, Brian Greene calls in reinforcements, in the form of tractor-trailers. Long before a particular system is swirling on the horizon, Greene, the president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, dispatches 40-plus hauls of disaster-relief supplies to local shelters so each outfit will have a stockpile of water, granola bars, and cleaning supplies. The idea is to get out ahead of any storm, and then hunker down. “That’s our normal plan,” Greene says. “And it looked pretty good.” But Tropical Storm Harvey wasn’t normal.

Under normal circumstances, hurricanes don’t hold steady overhead. “They’re not supposed to do that. They go 15 or 20 miles an hour. They hit you and move on and then you assess and then begin the follow-up work,” Greene says. But Harvey continued to assail the city for days, throwing a wrench in the food bank’s plans.