By Raines Rushin
Photography by James Edward Bates
Editor’s note: At press time, volunteers with Operation BBQ Relief
were packing up their Houston effort and moving
to the areas in Florida hardest hit by Hurricane Irma.
It is hot for the first time in six days. The breeze has stalled. The downtown haze of city bus exhaust and east Texas humidity envelops everything. The Chevron on Louisiana Street is back in business, and people in ties and loafers are going back at work. The Astros are playing a home game at Minute Maid Park this evening. A small, blue Toyota in a loading zone is getting a parking ticket on Lamar Street outside the Wells Fargo Center. Someone got cut off on the I-45 feeder this morning and is tweeting about it while they wait in traffic near I-45.
For a city inundated with massive flooding just the week before, it is a fairly normal morning for Houston, Texas.
In a parking lot at 401 West Dallas St., just behind Sam Houston Park, Jeff Petkevicius is pulling a slow-smoked pork roast off a massive barbecue cooker. It is the 48th out of 400 or so he will pull this morning. He is wearing a black t-shirt with “GIVE IT TO GOD” on the front. The sleeves are cut off, and his massive arms are covered in tattoos, grease, sweat and soot. They glisten as he hands off huge roasts of cooked barbecue pork shoulders to volunteers. He pulls quietly. Every few minutes, he calls for another ice chest to load with meat. The fat-dripping pounds of cooked meat are his pride – and his mission. He is the pitmaster for Operation BBQ Relief, and he is at the center of the largest disaster relief feeding effort in Houston after Hurricane Harvey devastated the city in late August with nearly 50 inches of rain. By the time he finishes pulling the last butt off the cooker, a team of more than 120 volunteers will prepare the 300,000th meal since they set up ten days ago.
In 2006, Stan Hays had watched the sky over Joplin, Missouri, as a tornado curled down and annihilated the small town. He and Will Cleaver – a friend and fellow competition barbecue pitmaster – decided then to join resources and networks to find a way to make barbecue bring relief. It took them 11 days to push 120,000 plates of warm barbecue plates of pulled pork, green beans and corn across the table and into hands of emergency responders, exhausted from recovery, rescue and resilience.
“We couldn’t even imagine what these people were going through,” Hays says of the experience. “We wanted to bring not just food, but barbecue. A hot plate of barbecue can mean so much more than just another meal. It can take you back to that place where families and friends gather and sit down to eat. It’s a comfort when you need it, and we wanted to provide that.”
Since that first week some 11 years ago, Operation BBQ Relief has grown into an organized nationwide disaster relief effort helping to feed first responders and victims of natural disasters in 21 states.
When the alarm is sounded, the national network – now made of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of donors – rapidly pulls together. Even the mention of a pending disaster sends the network into motion. Hurricane Harvey was still over Houston when Hays and his advance team arrived to torrential rains and flooding in Spring, Texas. His trailer had been loaded before Harvey made landfall, and his core advance team had stopped everything – jobs, back-to-school, vacations – to set the OBR wheels in motion.
The organization tends to the needs of first responders, offering sustenance and encouragement as they assist victims. But if a shelter calls and needs 1,000 meals, the team takes the order. Operating on strictly a donor basis, volunteers pay for their own expenses, including travel and camping and/or hotel room expenses. The lion’s share of the protein is donated in bulk by suppliers. Monetary donations are accepted at operationbbqrelief.org, their largest donation channel.
Brian Roppolo is a vital part of the advance team. A sturdy man from Shreveport, Louisiana, Roppolo guides the day-to-day operations of OBR’s massive Houston downtown deployment site. While one end hums and crackles with sounds of volunteers opening 10-pound cans of beans and corn, another corner whistles and honks as a refrigerated semi trailer takes is place among five others and a forklift unloads pallets of frozen pork. Most people have never seen him without some sort of cap on. His presence is not subdued. His radio is never silent, and he is seldom still for more than a minute or two. It is Day 10 of the deployment to Houston. He hangs up a call with his counterpart at the Goliad, Texas, deployment site, answers a radio query on truck parking, makes a jab at a fellow volunteer and then refocuses on the future – all within the space of seven seconds. He takes the next three to ponder what comes next.
“We’re going to look to leave starting Friday,” he says quietly. “We going to do 45,000 (meals) on Wednesday, 40,000 on Thursday. Probably 20,000 on Friday then we going to start pulling out of here.”
He is not happy with leaving – or where the team is headed next.
“We are going to get back to Shreveport, clean up and get ready for Irma,” he says. “We don’t know where she is going. We’re going to have to go where she hits.”
As they head into the uncertainty of what Irma will bring, the organization’s website issues this plea for help: “We are looking for staging and places to set up camp to prepare and serve hot barbecue meals in the aftermath of this impending disaster. If you know of a place that has power and back up power, a kitchen, facilities to house volunteers, showers, and plenty of room outside for tractor trailers, commercial smokers and the like, please let us know.”
Two weeks is the longest OBR has deployed in one location. Hays has said the team will meet the need until the need is no more. On Day 12 of their Texas deployment, they plate their 320,000th meal.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is grateful. “As we work together to rebuild, a hot meal from caring hands helps to remind us that we are in this together.”
On the day before they depart for Irma’s wrath, the sun is rising slowly and seems to pause in the humid morning air. It crests the tops of the Kinder Morgan and Shell Oil buildings and breaks the shade open at 401 West Dallas Street. A group of men and a few women gather under a large tent. Behind them, 419 pork loins begin the descent into a slow cooker. A forklift beeps backwards and stops. The driver curses and restarts, beeping again. The group is quiet with coffee and water in hands. Heavy, white “hot gloves” stained in spots of red and brown hang from the pockets of cargo shorts. Less than 30 feet away, a line of traffic is already bunched up behind One Allen Center – the western gateway to downtown. The honks and growls of rush hour have begun early with morning drive time radio shows blaring from open windows. Some will be late to work. It is a fairly normal Houston morning.
A Mississippi volunteer sporting a full gray beard, a veteran of the Food Network’s BBQ Pitmasters TV show, stands beside a young volunteer whose home three miles away was flooded in the storm. A woman in a blue sun visor pulls the front of her shirt smooth and brushes off the sauce that had earlier landed there. They all bow their heads as Petkevicius leads them in prayer. He closes with an “Amen” and brings the circle in tight. With a once-clean towel draped around his neck, he glances across the flock of volunteers.
“We have people to feed,” he says. “Let’s get to it.”
Want to help?
For information on how to contribute to
Operation BBQ Relief,
or to learn how to make a donation via text,