From the 23rd floor of his apartment building in Houston’s energy corridor, on the day Hurricane Harvey hit the city, things below looked and sounded unexceptional to Matthew Wettergreen.
“We were sort of isolated from what was happening. The first floor of the apartment flooded but we didn’t know that right away. It seemed anticlimactic,” said Wettergreen, a lecturer in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK) at Rice University.
Things changed quickly. With his wife, Claudia Solis, who works in marketing and event planning, Wettergreen walked through downtown’s flooded streets to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which had been turned into a temporary shelter for those displaced by the hurricane. Some 10,000 Houstonians were eventually housed and fed there. Soon, Wettergreen was serving pasta to thousands of homeless Houstonians.
“That time is sort of a blur. We were feeding people and accepting donations of food and clothing. It all seemed so chaotic,” said the veteran of relief work in Ethiopia, Malawi and other under-developed countries.
On Aug. 30, four days after Harvey hit the mainland, Wettergreen, Solis and their friend Jonathan Beitler, also in marketing, created a website called IHaveFoodINeedFood.com, where commercial kitchens and licensed caterers could donate prepared food and where shelters, evacuees and emergency personnel could request it. Much of the technical work on the site was done by Amy Kavalewitz, executive director of the OEDK.
“It was like the Chicago Board of Trade. Somebody has 50 pork bellies to sell and somebody wants 50 pork bellies. We bring them together,” said Wettergreen, who earned a Ph.D. in bioengineering from Rice in 2008.
I Have Food I Need Food works closely with the Midtown Kitchen Collective, housed in the former SEARCH Homeless Services building at 2505 Fannin St. At its peak of activity, the Collective was serving from 10,000 to 15,000 hot meals a day and an average of 1,000 sandwiches per hour. Sommelier Cat Nguyen, for instance, organized a team to run a grocery store of food and other supplies donated by private individuals and such large companies as Goya Foods.
“Social media was really the key. We depended on Facebook. If this storm had happened in the 90’s, we would have had an even greater disaster on our hands,” Wettergreen said.
He attributes much of the success of I Have Food I Need Food to his experiences running and teaching engineering design courses through the OEDK. “Teaching engineering design requires the careful coordination of many different actors and organizing them is made easier using shared technology like Google forms and sheets,” he said. “We’ve all been working like crazy but we’ve never felt more alive.”