“How many meals you want?” Marvis Steele asked a small line of residents from Wilmington’s Creekwood South public housing community. “We have some really good turkey.”
Steele, a Salvation Army volunteer, was standing in the hot sun Wednesday, handing out Styrofoam containers of barbecue. Residents, many of which were taking the food back to family members, said the area was still without power, and it was unclear when they might get it back.
The Salvation Army, Steele said, had already handed out nearly 300 lunches at Creekwood South. The community has been without power since Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wilmington.
All of that “good turkey” she was handing out had been smoked just hours earlier, across town in the parking lot of an old K-Mart on College Road, where large smokers were pumping out thousands of pounds of meat.
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The cooks: Operation BBQ Relief, a nonprofit that will be cooking hundreds of thousands of pounds of turkey, pork and beef for Wilmington residents until early October.
Operation BBQ Relief was founded in 2011, by two Kansas City, Missouri, competition barbecuers who started cooking meals for people affected by a catastrophic tornado in Joplin, Missouri. Their effort turned into an organization that can now be found trailing most natural disasters across the country ready to serve free meals.
The group doesn’t cook a specific type of barbecue, when doing relief projects, instead relying on whatever sauce has been donated.
Today, the group was using “Bone Suckin’ Sauce,” which is made by Ford’s Foods out of Raleigh. A volunteer described it as a mix between Lexington-style sauce and Eastern North Carolina-style sauce.
At dinnertime, Operation BBQ was cooking hundreds of pork butts for people to pour the sauce over, while dozens of residents queued up for meals to take home.
Tina Britt, a resident of the Port-o-Pines Estates neighborhood, said she had heard about the free barbecue over the radio while driving. Her home has no power right now, so she was happy for a hot meal.
“I have no idea how long it’s going to be out,” she said, adding that all the food in her freezer has either been eaten or gone bad. “But I am so grateful that they are doing this.”
This is the second time the group has made its way to North Carolina, said Scott Jarrett, the group’s North Carolina lead organizer from Hickory. The other time was during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, when it set up a small operation in Fayetteville.
“It’s all about giving back,” Jarrett said “In the end, barbecue people are one big family.”
This time it is doing a much bigger setup and helping cook individual meals for the Salvation Army and delivering bulk orders to places like churches, shelters and retirement homes.
“We are prepared to do 25,000 meals a day,” said Marc Mangano, a member of the nonprofit who came down from New Jersey. “We have done 12,000 meals” just for lunch.
Their operation came in all the way from Kansas City on eight tractor-trailers. The barbecue is cooked in six massive smokers that can handle 2,000 pounds of meat at a time. The group did 18,000 meals on Tuesday, its first day of operations.
The nonprofit, who gets its meats donated from Seaboard Meats and Butterball, said it expects to have served its two millionth meal while in Wilmington.
So far Operation BBQ Relief has 160 volunteers in Wilmington, though the group said it could use more. “If this was a restaurant … we would need twice the number of people,” said John David Wheeler of the Memphis Barbecue Company in Tennessee. “But these people are getting it done.”
Many of the volunteers are barbecue cooks themselves — people like Nick Woolfolk, a caterer from Mississippi. He got involved with Operation BBQ several years ago because he felt like it was someplace he could contribute.
“There are people who know how to build homes (after a disaster), there are people who know how to fix power lines,” he said. “What I know how to do is cook.”
Wheeler, who is in charge of the cooking, said he expects this to be one of the organization’s biggest operations since Hurricane Irma and Harvey last year.
“I’ve gotten an eerie feeling,” Wheeler said, “because not that many people are back in town yet.”
Highways to Wilmington have been blocked off for much of the week, which kept the town isolated for several days. Operation BBQ struggled to get here for several days because of flooding, Wheeler said.
Yet, lines of hundreds of people were waiting for food at lunch, he said. “I think it’s going to get crazier as people return,” he said. “We don’t get (lines of people) anywhere else.”