- Associated Press - Monday, September 25, 2017

BATESVILLE, Ark. (AP) - Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods - for 25 years, Rick Bunch of Batesville has answered the call, feeding people in times of all sorts of crises.

And just a couple weeks ago, Bunch has returned home following back-to-back hurricanes in the southern United States, although his team couldn’t even get into central Florida in the aftermath of Irma. But should the need arise, Bunch said he will answer it. That’s part of his involvement with Operation BBQ Relief.

The Batesville Daily Guard reports that Operation BBQ Relief provides meals to displaced residents and emergency personnel in the aftermath of various disasters.

“When we’re deployed, it’s to a safe location for an ultra-mass feeding. There’s no more line feeding,” said Bunch, who also said he’s available to speak to local churches and civic organizations about the disaster relief work.

This means OBR camps prepare food for other sites, such as shelters, churches and more. The preferred method, Bunch said, is to send out pans of meat and sides to accommodate the numbers of people at those sites. “That has proven to be the only way we can do the staggering amounts we do.”



Meals may go out by private car or truck, fire truck, police car, military vehicle, ambulance and even helicopter, if need be.

But to get to the disaster site, OBR volunteers must have clear lanes of travel and a large, secure location in which to set up.

In Houston, OBR vehicles arrived with armed police escorts - and left the same way.

Bunch left Batesville the morning of Thursday, Aug. 31 (Hurricane Harvey made landfall in southern Texas on Aug. 26). After nine days in Houston, he then went to Slidell, Louisiana - and basically found a parking lot on Interstate 10 going into Florida, as of Tuesday morning.

Traffic was bumper to bumper. Bunch said he’d never seen so many automobiles in his life.

“You would move a little and stop, move a little and stop,” he said. “Florida was hideous.”

Bunch said originally he was going to make his way into central Florida, but that trip came to a halt at the small town of Marianna, still 500 miles from Miami.

“We cannot get a full-size team into Florida and supply them, so we turned around in Marianna, Florida.”

People were sleeping in a truck stop there. “They were making a pallet for their kids and setting out lanterns to sleep. There are no (hotel) rooms anywhere.”

And by the time Bunch arrived in the truck stop’s parking lot, there was not another parking space to be had. People who did manage to turn in there had to turn right around again.

Diesel there was $3 a gallon.

“On into Pensacola, we were told there was no fuel at all.

“Six million people were evacuated (for Hurricane Irma), and they’re all trying to get home,” Bunch said.

OBR could not secure a large enough site to house its volunteers, so the decision was made to split teams into small groups. Bunch said his services as camp chef weren’t needed, so he headed home for Batesville, arriving about 9 Wednesday night.

The role of camp chef is easily enough explained.

“My job is to feed the feeders,” he said. But like a visit from in-laws, he joked, eating barbecue gets old after the first three days. So he plans other meals with “plain ol’ food” such as brown beans and pork chops. “We fix nutritious meals for the crew itself, but with the crew splitting into small units, there was no need for me to stay.”

Bunch said he usually carries dry goods with him. Then OBR will get the perishables like milk, eggs and cheese as soon as possible upon arrival.

And once OBR has set up and the first meat goes in - “the cookers never cool.”

The cookers themselves will hold 30,000-40,000 pounds of meat. Once that is cooked, volunteers will unload it and load new meat, then process the cooked meat. The freshly cooked meat is stored, and a new batch is unloaded. It is a never-ending process and someone must always be watching the meat.

“You cannot allow mistakes to happen.”

Bunch said he is often “scooted over” to the side, out of the crowds, and his job does allow him to get five to six hours of sleep at night, which is well needed after a day of feeding hungry volunteers who in turn are preparing food for the masses.

OBR ensures each meal comes with a meat and two sides plus a piece of bread.

“At the height of our stay (in Texas), we fed 60,000 meals in one day.”

Vehicles of every kind lined up to be loaded, and a few U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Border Patrol helicopters carried water and OBR food to the worst-stricken areas in Victoria, Texas, and the coastal areas.

He said the least preferred method is the traditional “clamshell” Styrofoam tray.

“They break, spill food and they don’t keep the meal warm.”

Instead, OBR prefers to send pans of the food in bulk to be individually dished out on site to the recipients. This cuts down on OBR’s manpower and allows the shelters and other facilities to be a bigger part of the deployment and interact with the recipients longer, Bunch said.

While in Texas, OBR fed nearly 400,000 hot meals in just over a week. That sounds like - and is - a lot, but Bunch has seen even more staggering numbers. He went to Los Angeles after a magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck the San Fernando Valley region in January 1994, killing 60 and injuring more than 9,000 people. Vehicles and tractor-trailers were stuck on broken overpasses, natural gas lines ruptured and buildings collapsed and/or burned.

At that time, Bunch was working with the Arkansas Baptist Men (part of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention’s Disaster Relief team) and was dispatched to California to help.

“After the North Ridge earthquake, we fixed 100,000 meals a day, every day,” he said.

Bunch has been involved with disaster relief since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

“I saw a demonstration of mass feeding from a team (from the Arkansas Baptist Men) and knew immediately I had to do it.”

For several years, he traveled with a competitive barbecue team, the Rib Ticklers, and he’s also done quite a bit of barbecue catering.

So it just seemed like a natural fit to join forces with Operation BBQ Relief.

OBR started six years ago with a different group of guys also involved in competitive barbecue cooking after the tornadoes hit Joplin, Missouri. The men banded together, wanting to be of help, and then showed up and began doing what they do best: cooking barbecue.

Bunch said he has been with OBR for a little more than a year.

“We are one of the first teams into an affected area. We mobilize quickly,” he said. As other agencies come in, “We see the need being met by organizations that are more permanently placed,” and the need for OBR’s presence falls off.

One reason OBR can get to a site so quickly, Bunch said, is that the founder and management all travel with the volunteers.

“We are ready to go. We do not seek board approval. The mandate is to go. . When OBR mobilizes, they mobilize everybody.” The only thing they have to do first, he said, is find a large, secure site for the setup.

That doesn’t mean they’ll always have hotel rooms. A lot of volunteers sleep in trailers - Bunch himself built a bed into his barbecue bus.

What they do need, however, is 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, etc.

And there will be people from all over turning out in droves to help. In Texas alone, Bunch met people from Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Delaware and Kansas City, Missouri.

More than 90 cents of every dollar donated to OBR is returned to victims of disasters.

“One dollar will feed one meal - every meals costs one dollar,” Bunch said.

The costs are kept low thanks to donations and partnerships, including Flowers Baking Co. in Batesville, which gave OBR a trailer full of bread and other baked goods, driven to Texas by fellow OBR volunteer Brandon Magness, also of Batesville.

Allen Harim Foods in Delaware, for instance, loaded up 40,000 pounds of chicken and hauled it to Houston, at no cost, for OBR to use.

“That is pretty common, in that we see so many donations of food product from companies just wanting to help.”

___

Information from: Batesville Guard, https://www.guardonline.com/

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