With an estimated 10,000 restaurants across the metro area offering food from all over the world, Houstonians have come to expect diverse and creative cuisine. But when a storm strikes, floodwaters rise, the power goes out and the restaurants close, we all have to make do with what’s in the pantry or emergency kit.
Hurricane season officially begins June 1, so it’s time to prepare for emergencies: make a plan, build a kit, stay informed and know your neighbors.
After three consecutive years of severe weather events, Houstonians are familiar with the sight of long lines and empty grocery store shelves. So, what’s in your pantry right now? If a storm hit Houston tonight, would you have enough to feed yourself or your family?
Even after the storm passes, there is no guarantee that stores will immediately reopen or restock. What meals would you prepare? What would you do when, “What’s for dinner?” becomes an urgent question or a guessing game?
The answer could be to improvise with whatever is in the pantry. For instance: What do you get when you combine Ramen noodles, hot sauce, canned pineapple, bacon and peanuts?
Geoff Hundt, chef of Local Foods Downtown, learned those simple ingredients can win first place and title of “Houston’s Most Prepared Chef,” in the Ready Houston Preparedness Kit Chef’s Challenge.
The event, hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security on April 29, encouraged Houstonians to prepare now for future emergencies.
Four Houston area chefs competed in the timed, blind challenge to make a gourmet dish using only canned and shelf-stable ingredients. Contestants included Hundt, Chef Harold Wong of Bovine and Barley, Chef Silvia Covarrubias of Edgar’s Hermano in the Whitehall Hotel, and Chef Rafael Gonzalez of Quattro at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“This challenge is more than just a fun event and friendly competition. This is an opportunity to educate Houstonians about the safest measures to take to prepare for a disaster,” said Jackie Miller of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.
“Memories of Hurricane Harvey are still strong in the minds of most Houstonians. This is a chance to look back at lessons learned from Harvey and other recent storms and think about what you would have done differently. The best way to get peace of mind is to be prepared.”
Hundt said his style of cooking usually revolves around fresh, seasonal and locally sourced food, so it was a departure to come up with a dish using only nonperishable items. It was his first time to participate in an official preparedness challenge, but last year he put his improvisational skills to the test in his kitchen after Harvey.
“The first day I came down to the restaurant after Harvey, I tried to use as much food as we could. We gave food to family, friends and staff, knowing we would lose power. We also flooded at home.
I wasn’t able to leave for three days. I craved simple foods like pasta, starches, grains and fresh fruits and vegetables,” Hundt said. “People usually think about canned food when they are preparing for emergencies, but there are a lot of fresh foods like apples, oranges and bananas and pears and other veggies that will stay good without refrigeration for several days.”
Before moving to Houston, Gonzalez lived in Miami and the Caribbean, so he is no stranger to preparing for hurricanes and tropical storms.
“We take hurricanes seriously in my family, and we know the drill,” Gonzalez said. “You can eat well even when the power goes out. You can still make things taste good without giving up and just eating out of the can. Condiments are key; hot sauce is my secret weapon.
I keep a butane-powered camp stove and you can boil water on the barbecue, as long as you have propane or charcoal.”
The chefs weren’t the only attraction at the event. Several city departments provided preparedness information and gave away supplies. Norma Atherton, a senior trainer with the Houston Health Department, gave out copies of HHD’s “Houston Emergency Preparedness Cookbook: Recipes to Turn Your Emergency Food Supply Into Life-saving Meals," which is also available online.
“The cookbook talks about items you should put in to your emergency supplies, how to cook when you lose electricity and how tell if the food in your freezer or refrigerator is still safe to eat,” Atherton said.
“We give some simple recipes based on type of foods you may typically have in your pantry. Half of the recipes require some source of heat like a camping stove, and the other half don’t require heat at all.
Since we’re nearly in the summer time, we don’t have to wait for an emergency to use the cookbook either,” she said. “These recipes are good for when you don’t want to fire up the stove or oven inside.”
Among the contest judges was Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner, whose calm delivery of critical weather news earned him celebrity status during Hurricane Harvey.
Lindner said he didn’t have to pack a hurricane food kit for himself because he spent the entire hurricane at the TranStar Emergency Operation Center, where he was sleep deprived but well fed. Since then, he has been asked to give preparedness advice on several occasions.
“People ask me all the time how to be better prepared, and everybody’s needs are different,” Lindner said. “There are a lot of generic kits and general lists, but you have to put a little thought into what make you most comfortable when you have to shelter-in-place or what you need if you have to evacuate.
A lot of people said they missed having something as simple as coffee.”
“If we have a hurricane with high wind and power outage, medications and cash are very important,” Lindner said. “If the power is out, you can’t use debit card and credit card.
“Flood insurance is a big thing. Only 36 percent of the people who flooded had flood insurance. Flood insurances takes 30 days to go into effect, and Hurricane season starts June 1, so it’s time to get those flood insurance policies in place now,” Lindner said.