OperationBBQRelief.org – Helping with Hurricane Irma in Florida


<Watch 2 minute trip highlight YouTube video>

I recently returned from South Florida where I worked with OperationBBQRelief.org to serve hot BBQ meals to first responders and those in need after hurricane Irma. It was an intense experience from two perspectives:  physicality and emotional intensity. It was physically intense as I’m a sedentary IT desk jockey. We cooked 25,000 meals for lunch and dinner. In order to cook that many meals, everything has to be scaled up. Meats and canned vegetables were measured by the pallet, not by the pound. And the environment was draining. The temperatures were usually above 90°F and the humidity was grueling.

And there was the emotional intensity of looking into the eyes of folks impacted by Irma. It reminded me of how tough Mother Nature could be. I realized that it could be me needing the hot meal. After all, I live in earthquake prone Los Angeles. The last big earthquake I experienced was the 1994 Northridge earthquake which claimed the lives of 54 victims and cost $50 billion to repair. The dividing line between responder and victim is painfully thin. Here’s my blog and I hope you can help support OperationBBQRelieg.org.

By way of background, OperationBBQRelief.org was started in 2011 by Stan Hays, a fellow barbecue competitor. After a tornado tore up Joplin, Missouri in 2011, Stan started serving hot barbecue meals to emergency responders and Joplin’s 50,000 residents. BBQ teams from eight states joined him and helped cook 120,000 hot meals over 12 days. Food was delivered to shelters, hospitals, senior living communities, and the Humane Society. Volunteers loaded food into vehicles and delivered directly to families in the impacted areas. The people who volunteer are competition cooks, caterers and chefs. All of the food and supplies were donated, and funding came from across the country. Since then, OBR has deployed 200+ days in 21 states after 35 disasters. For example, OBR served 370,000 meals in 9 days after Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

I volunteered for Houston by registering online (or you can use the OBR phone app). Since the Houston deployment was winding down, OBR officials deployed me to Irma instead. Volunteers had to wait for Irma to pass through Florida until conditions were safe for us to work. I checked the Florida airports and found that Tampa was operational, so I booked a redeye to Tampa the day after Irma passed. I waited in Tampa for deployment instructions since the OBR site had not been selected. The chosen site needed to be logistically feasible to house a small army of volunteers, smokers, refrigerated trucks, tents, and RVs.

Word came by text from Dana Reid, OBR Chief Volunteer Officer, to mobilize volunteers in Estero, a city on the west coast of Florida. Google Maps showed that it was a couple of hours south of Tampa, so I headed south in my rental minivan. My plan was to use the van to sleep in if I was unable to find a hotel or a sleeping spot onsite. After loading my van with water and emergency snacks (not easy to find in Tampa since many stores were out of supplies), I headed south on I-75. The effect of Irma was seen everywhere. There were downed trees, broken poles, and damage that got progressively worse as I headed south. I shared the I-75 traffic with relief and repair vehicles heading south.

I arrived on Wednesday night at the massive Germain Arena in Estero. Though it is mostly a sports arena, officials turned it into a shelter for locals. The parking lot surrounding the arena was dark and semi-flooded. Even so, a few OBR trucks and smokers were sitting in water in the rear parking area.  OBR leaders coordinated volunteers and the cooking trailers that were coming on the heels of the Houston deployment. It was too late and dark to set up, so we adjourned to a fellow OBR volunteer’s home for dinner and to plan for the next day. I was very fortunate to find a hotel room, albeit it was 40 minutes away. Most hotels, who had electricity, were already fully booked by emergency and relief workers.  Lucky for me, the hotel I contacted just had their electricity turned back on.

On Thursday morning, I joined 20 volunteers from all over America to begin the OBR deployment site setup.  For 3 hours we positioned tents, smokers, trailers, cooking gear.  At around 10 am, the President’s Marine One chopper flew overhead with several escort aircraft.  We were all working feverishly as OBR needed to start cooking several thousand meals.  On Day-1 we cranked out over 2,400 meals even as new volunteers were being trained.

By Friday, more tents, equipment, trucks, smokers, and RVs arrived. The fledging OBR parking lot site evolved into a smooth-running operation. There were several zones including warehousing, refrigeration, meat prep/cooking, sides prep/cooking, receiving, and distribution. The parking lot was filled with huge pallets of water, propane tanks, igloos and food warmers, #10 cans of green beans, corn, baked beans, and vegetables. There were three large Ole Hickory Pits on the first cooking trailer as well as a pair of even larger Ole Hickory Pits on a second trailer.

Due to the sheer volume of meat being cooked, movements were done by forklift. For example, a pallet of meat would be transported from the refrigerated truck to the meat cooking area. A team would unload the pallet of meat onto tables where another team would open the packaging.

Others would lay out the meat on the tables while another team would season the meat, flip, and season the back side. The seasoned meat was pushed further down the table for another crew to load it into the smokers.  After it was cooked, several cooks would unload it into large igloos to be kept warm. This cycle was repeated for the lunch and dinner service.

When it was time for distribution, a group of volunteers would take the meat from the smokers or the igloos and load the chopping machine for pulled pork or the slicing machine for pork loin.  The meat was loaded into half foil pans with BBQ sauce, or into plastic bags, which were stored in Cambro warmers or coolers. Then the food would be sent to various locations for distribution.

I also worked at the distribution zone where cars and vehicles would pick up food.  A typical meal might have pork, corn, and green or baked beans.  Besides individual distribution, we also distributed by pallets. We packed 5,000 meals onto pallets to be shipped by plane to affected areas further south.

Over the next few days, there were volunteers from local churches and groups.  At the height of activity, there were over 100 volunteers working the lunch and dinner shifts.  Conditions were hot and humid, and we were reminded to drink water and take rest breaks.  I worked like a madman in meat, sides, and distribution, doing as much as I could before returning to LA.  While I was unloading #10 cans of corn, an OBR lead tapped me on the shoulder. He needed to pull me from the line to have a word with me.   I thought “Uh Oh” did I do something wrong?  The lead gave me a little chip that said, “You Were Caught Doing Good”.  He mentioned that he noticed me working extra hard and non-stop in multiple zones.  It was really a surprise and an honor to receive a token of appreciation from OBR.

Whether you’re a backyard cook, competition BBQ team, caterer, restaurateur or simply an individual or group wanting to help, you can be a part of this rewarding experience in helping people.  OBR relies solely on volunteers and donations.  There are ongoing disasters so if you would like to volunteer, signup on OperationBBQRelief.org.  If you’d like to donate, donate to the OBR. OBR is a grassroots charity where your contribution goes directly to victims and first responders.

Food is a universal language, and everybody is happy when they’re eating.  A hot meal will not change the world but if you’ve been devastated by a disaster, it can give you hope for better times.  Those who know me, know that I believe there is no future without love.  That’s why I always say live, love and barbecue.  I love what I do and love whom I do it for even though I may not always know the person.  Operation BBQ Relief is taking donations and they are also always looking for volunteers.