Managing the Café through a natural disaster, including water shortages and food supply issues, resides squarely in the box of challenges we never imagined facing. Well, ok, being in an earthquake zone we had imagined it, but hoped we wouldn’t have to face it. But this past week we were put to the test as Peru grapples not with tectonic shifting but with devastating rains: in 33 days the country has received an amount of rain roughly equal to what normally falls in six years. The impact of the rainfall - brought to us largely in images from other regions of the country - is devastating.
So, what is going on? It seems that El Niño rains that normally fall further eastward along the Andes shifted westward due to warmer ocean temperatures. Now, areas of the country unused to that rainfall in any year are being deluged with record rains. The result has been overflowing rivers; flash flooding; sudden, rushing mudslides called huaicos; avalanches and overwhelmed infrastructure: bridges are down, roads and main highways are impassable and many homes and crops have been damaged or destroyed. People and animals have been stranded, displaced or killed. One of many images that has dominated media shows a woman emerging from a huaico in Punta Hermosa after being dragged some 600 meters, literally washing ashore atop mud-caked debris from homes destroyed by the violently flowing mud.
Although little rain is falling in the coastal Lima desert, the rivers that crosscut Lima, fed from the mountains where the heavy rain is falling, are now pulsing with heavy currents, overflowing their banks, and the muddy waters are flooding homes, filling streets and overwhelming the ability of Lima’s water treatment plants to maintain a consistent potable water supply.
At the Café, as for many businesses in the city, water service is intermittent and water quality is not guaranteed. Bottled water has been rationed (after being rushed by panicked citizens and speculators alike), and food supply routes are blocked and prices inflated – the price of limes, as an example, went from S/. 4 a kilo to S/. 40 in a matter of days. Our employees, as many of our clients, have been affected by the images, at times cut off from their family residing in the harder hit regions, water shortages and uncertainty. People who could continued to work, adapting to the changing situation. And we did too.
Flexibility has been our greatest ally. And patience. We lost water on a Thursday afternoon in the middle of our lunch rush. The substantial amounts of water we had stored that we thought would help us last out the week ran low quickly. Our staff was tired, their kids were home from school - cancelled the same week it had re-started after summer vacation - and the weather was unhelpfully sweltering. Staff opened Friday morning with scant water and dry taps, everyone was stressed and it was hot. We decided to close and take the weekend to regroup.
On Monday we had sporadic water, no fish and our produce suppliers were low on stock. We got creative, and paper plates. We cut our menu back to the basics - sandwiches, oven roasted chicken and mashed potatoes, lentils and burgers - and rationed out the filtered water for drinking only. We made a chocolate cake and broke out the thankfully previously processed passion fruit juice. We suspended deliveries and asked clients to bear with us. People were focused on pulling together, and happily we ruffled only a few feathers. We ran out of everything and smiled and invented new dishes on the fly with what we could scrounge up for our late lunchers. We closed at 3 p.m. glad to have made it through a rough day.
We took each successive day as it came, shooting the same messages back and forth all week. “Is there water?” “Is it running strong or trickling?” “Did you talk to your family?” “Have you seen the price of limes?” “We need to ditch the [fill in the blank, there were several] dishes this week.” “Are all the water barrels re-filled?”
We managed to stay open throughout the week, swapping out lettuce in favor of peel-able salad fare, scaled back offerings and slowly got back into our rhythm. As the week closes, we’re still seeing fewer customers but have better stock, and thankfully most prices have re-stabilized quickly. As we ramp up the baking we're paying special heed to client requests this week for apple, lemon and pecan pies, double chocolate cookies and apple cake. Whatever brings comfort. As we return to greater functioning, we're also turning outward to participate in helping those much harder hit whose road back will be much longer.