Food aid has come in many forms after Hurricane Irma, but one group brought the comfort of All-American barbecue to Southwest Florida after the storm — the unique operation called Operation BBQ Relief in Estero.
Standing in the dry parking lot in front of Germain Arena, you’d almost forget it was filled with water a week before — trapping those with unraised cars at the arena’s shelter until the remnants of Hurricane Irma finally receded.
Now, the lot is filled with trailers, tents and semi-trucks and, even more prominently, the overwhelming smell of smoky barbecue.
"This is my second one in less than a month because I was down for Hurricane Harvey in Houston," Tim Lambert said. "We did 400,000 meals nearly — 371,760 to be exact."
Lambert is a volunteer for Operation BBQ Relief. It’s a nonprofit organization whose mission is to serve up barbecue to people hit by disaster — providing nourishment and comfort in the form of trays upon trays of smoky pulled pork and slow grilled vegetables.
Operation BBQ Relief is headquartered in Pleasant Hill, Missouri — just outside of Kansas City. But, the people who carry out its mission are from the competitive barbecue circuit, drawing pit masters from across the country.
Every day, they wake up far from home — either in beds in donated trailers or in the reclined seats of their own cars — to begin cooking the vegetables at 4 a.m. and processing the meat by 5 a.m. Then, distribution begins as banquet trays are loaded into trucks, which then head to the hardest hit areas, like Everglades City.
"They’re the forgotten, and that’s who we have to take care of," Lambert said. "And, we’re going to have to continue to take care of them, even after all this major relief effort is gone because those are the folks that had very little to begin with. Now, they have even less."
Lambert is from Oregon, but he has family in Port Charlotte. So, he stays with them and makes the commute down to Germain each morning, beginning at 3 a.m.
His meat-sorting partner for the day is Cheri Boyer. Her Fort Myers Beach home was destroyed in Hurricane Charley.
"This time, I mean, the beach was really spared," Boyer said, "so I mean, right away, I was just trying to find anybody."
Anybody in need, Boyer says. She wipes her sweating face with her sleeve.
The meat they are sorting through will be packaged in large aluminum trays alongside the vegetables. They are then distributed to community groups, religious organizations and county governments. Many come to pick up by car and truck, but a partnership with FedEx allows the fruits of Operation BBQ Relief's labor to reach as far as the Florida Keys with the help of planes.
By the end of the group’s four-day tenure, 125,000 meals were distributed. Boyer says not to focus on that number though.
"You know, it’s not that number," she said. "It’s the one meal that counts."