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Hearth & Home January 2019

Emily McGee at the Wilmington, North Carolina, deployment.

Pullin' Pork & Doin' Good

By Richard Wright

PhotoS courtesY: ©2019 Operation bbq relief.

Emily McGee finds her calling in the floodwaters of Wilmington, North Carolina.

Lisa Readie Mayer, barbecue writer for Hearth & Home, discovered the Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) crew feeding the needy after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area near her home in Red Bank, on the New Jersey shore. That was in 2012.

She introduced herself, got contact information, and later called to ask if I wanted an article about this group that rushed into areas devastated by natural disasters to cook thousands of meals, while providing warmth and sympathy.

Of course I said yes.

Later I spoke with Stan Hays, one of the three founders of OBR, and invited him to the HPBExpo, to join me on the stage at the Vesta Awards, explain his program, and perhaps raise a bit of money from an audience that has more than a passing affinity for fire, barbecue and their fellow man and woman.

This, of course, was the same group that raised approximately $2 million to replace every old wood stove in Libby, Montana, where people were suffering from the most lethal form of asbestos. New chimney, hearth pads, and training were part of that effort.

I had no doubt they would embrace Stan Hays and OBR.

Stan showed up at the 2013 HPBExpo, showed a few slides, explained what the organization was accomplishing, and asked for support. There wasn’t a dry eye in that ballroom.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Emily McGee, at the Expo in Nashville, was being introduced as the new director of Communications for the association. In that capacity she learned about the OBR, and the fact that the association had adopted it as its charity of choice. Before long (eight months or so), she made it known that she wanted to deploy with the OBR crew on one of their missions.

When flooding hit Wilmington, North Carolina, the OBR crew was there, and Emily McGee jumped into her car and was on her way.

Here’s her story.

The Operation BBQ Relief team preparing meals; in November they reached 2 million meals served.

A volunteer preparing sides of green beans.

Emily McGee: “I’ve always wanted to get involved in some sort of a disaster relief program. I wanted to help. I wanted to do something more than just sending a few bucks. Deploying with the Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) effort was the perfect opportunity, especially because it’s the charity of choice for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. Also, these people are directly on the ground helping those in trouble.

“When I first signed up to volunteer, I noted that I had a communications background. I also let them know that, while I wanted to volunteer year ’round helping with communications, I also wanted to get my hands dirty and be a  part of the deployment.”

I’ll bet they welcomed you with open arms.

McGee: “They did. When you sign up to volunteer, you get an automatic reply that asks if you have any of the skills they need. I emailed the marketing team and they got right back in touch with me. I first worked with them when they did a mock deployment at the end of May; they catered for the Invincible Spirit Foundation. It’s Gary Sinise’s organization, and every year they put on an event at Walter Reed Hospital for the patients, families, first responders, doctors, nurses, etc.

“This year OBR partnered with them and they provided all the food. We fed about 5,000 or 6,000 people that day, and that was my first opportunity to meet the people who are involved with OBR. Everybody was there, co-founders Stan Hays and Will Cleaver, and all the rest of the executives came. I was helping them with some press releases and other communications stuff over the summer, and then we saw the storm starting to develop, and we realized that Hurricane Florence would require a deployment.”

What skill did you say you have? Did you say, ‘I want to go down there and my skill is eating barbecue?’

McGee: “Well, that’s certainly one of my great skills. I had already been working all summer with David Marks, who is OBR’s chief marketing officer. He knew I wanted to deploy, to get a better view of the organization itself and what it does. When Florence hit, OBR deployed to Wilmington, North Carolina; with no traffic issues, it’s only about a five-hour drive from Washington. Obviously, when I drove down there were a lot of road closures so the trip was longer.

“I went down there to help with the media work. There were reporters already on site, and I helped a camera crew figure out where they should be next, but I also wanted to help with the cooking, with the preparations. I helped with volunteer registrations. I wanted to be a part of everything so I could understand how they did it.

“One morning I woke up at 5 am and helped them get the pork butts out of the smokers; they were doing about 900 butts a night. First you pull the butt off the smoker, then you pull the bone out and toss it into a cooler. When they start prepping the meals, they put the butts through the buffalo choppers to make pulled pork. I got dirty. I was power-washing grills. I was pulling the butts. I was making the individual meals.

“One thing they did in Wilmington, and also in Florida and in other areas of deployment, was to partner with the Salvation Army as well as other groups in order to do more mass distributions. They would prepare big trays of food, then the Salvation Army would pick them up and bring them out in the field where they would serve the meals. They might go two or three hours away from where we were cooking.

“We did do some individual meals by distribution, both in Wilmington and in Panama City, Florida. Most of it was done by mass production, and then by allowing other people to take the food and go out and serve it.”

In previous deployments, OBR worked closely with the Red Cross; they provided the hot meals because, apparently, the Red Cross doesn’t do that.

McGee: “Right. They also worked with people such as Jose Andreas and Guy Fieri, getting some of the bigger names involved. In Wilmington, we had people such as the Cajun Navy who would show up every day and pick up 5,000 meals. When I say 5,000 meals, they would be mass-produced so there would be big pans of the meat, pans of the sides, and then they would go out and divvy it up. It would be to local churches; it might be to local firehouses. They would put up phone numbers so people could call and say, ‘I’d like to feed all the people in my neighborhood and there are about 200 people.’ That’s how it worked.

“I think that the individual meal distribution is also really important because it helps the volunteers and the organization stay grounded. OBR was founded with Stan Hays and Will Cleaver serving individual meals to people in Joplin, Missouri. It’s still all about getting out there, meeting the people, and handing a meal to somebody. I did that for several nights. I went out in one of the smaller OBR trucks and we served meals door-to-door, knocking on doors and presenting them with a hot barbecue meal.

“It’s very emotional. This isn’t a surprise to anybody, but you see people who have potentially lost everything they own, and they are at a time where they don’t know what to do first. It’s so overwhelming. You give them that one hot meal that may provide a little bit of strength that allows them to figure out how to start recovering from the situation.

“It was extremely meaningful and emotional, and with lots of tears. There were a lot of people crying on both sides, because it’s so powerful. I left on Sunday after being there for five days. I got home and was in my own bed at 11 pm. I left some of the most devastating scenes of people who are just starting a month’s long process of recovery, and six hours later I’m in my own bed. It just felt surreal and unfair.

“I’m so grateful that the HPBA encouraged me to do this. I didn’t have to take vacation time or a couple of days off to do this. The company supported me fully, and I gave a presentation to the Board with pictures about what had happened.”

Emily McGee, director of Communications at HPBA, on her first – but not last – deployment with OBR.

L to R: Meals were delivered to the needy by truck, bike, or foot; Dave Marks comforts a victim.

I can see why many would be crying. It’s difficult to talk about such overwhelming hardship.

McGee: “One of the things that OBR has implemented, which is very helpful, is an emotional support system for the volunteers. They now have a confidential email address in the event that you feel a need to talk to somebody about anything you’ve seen or had to do. You can leave a message on an email address and a professional will get in touch with you and help you talk about what you saw.

“David Marks had indicated it’s almost like PTSD in that, a month later, you will just suddenly start crying because of what you saw. For example, I’ve never been through a disaster. I live in Washington, D.C., and I’ve never faced losing everything.

“Florence was a slowly created disaster in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was only a Category 1 when it came ashore, but it sat, and then moved west, and then it sat again. We went into one neighborhood the first night I was there, and there was some flooding. We brought them meals. We went back a few days later and it was flooded out. The water was coming in from the western part of the state, and it didn’t crest until a week after the storm had passed. So people who thought they were okay wound up being flooded out.

“So we kept going back to the same community and we started to get to know them, and to watch the water rising, and how the community came together. They all wound up living in tents in a field in their community, stockpiling cleaning supplies or shovels or whatever they might need to clean out their houses. The kids are running around saying, ‘This is exciting. We’re camping.’ Then you think about how hot it is; there is no air conditioning and they’re going to be here for a really long time. It’s not that this is going to end in a few days and they can go home.

“These are all the things that you really don’t think about when you read the stories and posts about the hurricane. Seeing it is just emotional. Here’s one anecdote from Wilmington that is David Marks’ story to tell, but I will share it because he told it to me.

“That first night, when I went out into the field in this one community, there was flooding and we ran across a guy who had a big truck, like an F350, one of the big giant trucks, a tall wheel base. He was driving out into the flooded areas to bring his neighbors out, and we said, Hey, would you like some hot barbecue? He said, ‘No, no, I’m fine. There are other people who need it more than I do.’ We said, No, seriously, we’ve got plenty of food. Finally we got him to say, ‘Okay, sure. If you say you have enough I’ll take one of those meals.’

“He took the meal and everybody went their separate way. Well, we ran into that same guy three or four days later, and he told us the day he met us he had made four or five runs into the flooded areas in his truck. When we ran into him, he was reaching the end of his strength. He said, ‘I really was thinking that I couldn’t do much more. But with that meal in me, I made a few more runs and got more people out.’

“David (Marks) said, ‘This is the first time we’ve ever realized that maybe we actually saved a life.’ It meant a lot to him, and he’s been doing OBR for many years.

“We tracked that truck driver down to give him the 2 millionth meal OBR has served. His name is Greg, and OBR made sure that it was a notable experience. It’s stories such as that makes you realize you can make a difference by serving a meal. It may seem like it’s not a big deal, but you’re touching people in ways that we can’t sometimes fathom. We only know this story because we ran into the guy later. He was just a guy who was helping his neighbors and we gave him 10 meals to put in his truck to give to those people. But it was an extraordinary experience.”

It sounds like you’re crying a little bit.

McGee: “A little bit. It wells you up a little bit when you think about it.”

L to R: A tired first responder gets a much needed meal. Greg is a true hero, and for that he was given the 2 millionth meal served by OBR.

Many residents, as well as first responders, were forced to camp out.

Am I correct that the deployment you were on was basically 100% water problems, and then you lost power a bit, but that wasn’t anywhere near what some of the panhandle towns experienced?

McGee: “Oh no. When I left Wilmington, where Florence hit was their largest deployment. Yes, it was a slow-moving catastrophe for the most part because it was flooding, but it was not a storm surge. This was post storm flooding. It was rising rivers.

“Just to give you an idea: they served 324,000 meals in Wilmington; they served 808,000 meals in Florida. They were in Wilmington for 21 days; they were in Florida for a full month. Up to this point in 2018, OBR has served 1.16 million meals.

“They served their millionth meal in 2015. They served their 2 millionth meal in 2018, and they are going to hit 3 million, probably, in California. There were people who volunteered in Wilmington who were talking about being at Sandy (New Jersey and New York). It’s pretty unbelievable what OBR is now compared to what it used to be.

“Multiple 18-wheelers were showing up in Wilmington every day, bringing product. They served 102,000 lbs. of pork and turkey, all donated by Seaboard Prairie Fresh or Butterball. That amount of food, the logistics required, and the effort of keeping everything clean is staggering. They averaged about 150 volunteers a day in Wilmington. Those were a lot of local people coming in. There was a core group of volunteers that lived in an RV on the site, which is what I did in Wilmington. People would just live in an RV for a month in Florida, in the parking lot of a Kmart.”

Whose RV is that? Is it OBR’s?

McGee: “No. I stayed in the RV that is owned by their chief technology officer because it had a spare room with four bunk beds; there were four women staying there and he and his wife were in the master bedroom at the other end of the RV. If you want to show up and volunteer and you contact them, they will try to find a way to accommodate you, because Stan has an RV and Will has an RV and I think many of them have bought them as this operation grew. They work with the cities to find a way to plug them in, hopefully at some point to get power and running water. There is a whole RV park in the parking lots.

“Then there are volunteers who don’t really have a role, and other people who do a lot of the cooking. If it’s a competitive barbecue chef, he or she probably has a trailer or RV anyway, because they travel to many events. Somebody also showed up for a day in Wilmington with a shower truck. He invited everyone to come and take a hot shower.

“Most of us in the RVs had showers, but a lot of the other volunteers stayed in tents in the parking lot. For some, their beds were their trucks; they would put a tent over it and you could see their sleeping rolls. I went down there not knowing where I was going to sleep, but David Marks had promised me that I would be sleeping somewhere where I could stretch out. I said, ‘I don’t care. I can sleep in my car.’ If you want to help you may have to rough it, but actually the accommodations were much nicer than I expected. I didn’t expect to have air conditioning and running water.”

Now, the actual cooking and feeding doesn’t go 24 hours a day, right? Everyone must stop to get a little rest.

McGee: “Yes, except for the cooking. They would load up the butts around mid-afternoon, and then take them off the next morning. The smokers, the slow cooking, needs to have people on shifts checking on things. After we pulled the butts we would then place pork tenderloins on the grill, and then the pork loins would be served at dinner and the butts would be lunch, but the lunches were always much bigger. We were doing 35,000 to 45,000 meals at lunch, and dinner might be 10,000.

“But the ‘sidesville,’ as we called it, was a whole separate area with commercial cookers where you heat stuff up. Those cookers could put out 1,500 sides in 30 minutes; thats a lot of beans, or corn, or rice and beans. That would be going on throughout the day. It would start around 6 am and go until 4 or 5 pm. But overnight the only thing cooking would be the butts on the grills, and that would give everybody a chance to clean up.

“The Health Department showed up several times. They made sure that everything was being done, food was at the right temperature, held at the right temperature, and everything was clean. We always had cleaning going on; if you had nothing to do, you could just walk around the site and pick up any trash that might have blown around. The folks at OBR pride themselves on leaving the parking lot cleaner than when they found it. Wilmington was a closed down Kmart parking lot, and the Salvation Army also served meals in the parking lot. We would have lines of people every day, but that was on the other part of the parking lot.”

It sounds as if, down the road, you would probably do another deployment.

McGee: “I loved the experience. It was everything I had hoped it would be, and I was able to help people. I was able to meet a lot of really, really cool people, and I could also help OBR with my skill set. I did some radio interviews while I was there because I was the only one available. I can talk to the local radio people. That’s no big deal.”

We understand that someone was doing a video documentary of the OBR effort.

McGee: “Yes, we spent two days with the guy who did the documentary. He was so touched by the experience that he then went down on his own. He went down to Florida and was involved as a volunteer. I told Jack (Goldman), I would love to do another deployment next year. The support of HPBA made it possible for me to do it. I haven’t been here long enough to accrue a lot of vacation time. He said, ‘No. You’re representing us so go do good. As long as it doesn’t directly conflict with something like the Expo or a Board meeting and it works in your schedule.’ I have the full support of the organization.”

It sounds as if you had a very good time doing good.

McGee: “I had a wonderful time, but it also changed me and it was emotionally draining. As I was leaving, my Dad called just to check on me. I was only 10 minutes into my trip home. He asked me something about my experience and I just started crying. I said, ‘I’ll have to talk to you later.’ Then I cried for 30 minutes. It was just the emotional side of the experience coming out. I can’t easily describe how those five days felt, but it just changes you.”

More Stories in this Issue

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