A week after Hurricane Ida smacked his hometown of Belle Chasse, Brad Harrison stood sweating under a tent in the parking lot of Celebration Church in Metairie, layering rosy slices of smoked brisket into metal trays.
Harrison was one of more than 600 volunteers from 25 states who signed up with the Virginia-based nonprofit Mercy Chefs, now making and handing out thousands of free meals a day in the disaster zone.
His own brand-new business, Big Baby’s BBQ, had barely gotten off the ground when Ida stormed in, forcing Harrison to give away all the inventory to neighbors. Until he can get back to work, he’s determined to help other people.
“That’s just what we do,” Harrison said.
Nearby, bands of teenagers in matching T-shirts filled Styrofoam containers with chicken, rice and biscuits. The roar of generators competed with Christian soft rock in the background.
A line of cars crept into the parking lot, directed by volunteers to a truck dispensing ice and then past a table where a young woman handed over meals with a cheerful, “Have a blessed day!”
Mercy Chefs founder Gary LeBlanc was on-site, talking to the team members who came in from Virginia and checking in with volunteers. LeBlanc is a native of the Gonzales area who attended the now-defunct Sam Barthe School and lived in New Orleans for 20 years, working in restaurants and catering. He was in the city after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina. He saw the urgent need for hot meals in a disaster zone and was haunted by some of the scenes.
“It was a life-changing event for me,” he said. “I saw the people standing on the bridge, and I recognized people that I had worked with.”
He wanted to help them the best way he knows how, with restaurant-quality hot meals. So Mercy Chefs doesn’t depend on donated food but instead buys its supplies in bulk.
“That was the genesis of Mercy Chefs, to serve high-quality meals,” he said.
Now the nonprofit watches incoming storms and other disasters and partners with local churches to put tents, mobile kitchens, generators and volunteers on the ground within days.
The organization has committed $250,000 to Ida relief in Louisiana and is serving 20,000 meals a day, LeBlanc said.
Mike Kemp and Keith Hall, neighbors from Wimberley, Texas, drove in last week to help. Both of them know what it’s like to be knocked flat by a natural disaster, and how vital and encouraging a hot meal can be. Hall had to rebuild his home twice: after a tornado in 1979, and later after a flood in 2015. Kemp said he lost his home in Galveston to Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Many of the volunteers from out of town are working 12-hour days and sleeping in churches that still don’t have power, they said. Some stay in RVs, hotels or Airbnbs. Outside Celebration Church, which is housed in a strip mall, one volunteer climbed out of a tent on Monday, zipping up the nylon flaps behind him.
Local people are also volunteering, sometimes picking up a meal, then signing up for shifts, said Diane MacDonald, a retired bank teller from Chesapeake, Virginia, and a longtime supporter of Mercy Chefs.
Meals are cooked and handed out at the Metairie site, and also being sent to 12 other hurricane-ravaged sites around the area, including locations in LaPlace, Violet, Larose, Houma and Golden Meadow. It’s a distribution model similar to what worked in Lake Charles after Hurricane Laura a year ago.
LeBlanc describes the nonprofit as faith-based but said volunteers don’t push religion on people. Instead, he hopes the no-strings-attached meals, served with kindness, are an example of what Christian love is all about.
“This experience has been incredible,” MacDonald said. “They want people to feel loved, and to feel hope.”
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