HAMMONTON, N.J.—When Superstorm Sandy cut a swath of destruction along the New Jersey coastline it left tens of thousands of people homeless or without power and heat. Within 72 hours, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was serving 170,000 meals a day—the beginning of a huge effort that would eventually mobilize all of the group’s large capacity mobile kitchens east of the Rocky Mountains.
Hammonton, N.J., midway between Atlantic City and Philadelphia, was spared the worst of the storm. Fall leaves, fading to crinkly brown, take flight with each gust of wind under a mostly cloudy sky. Here on the edge of the Ancora Psychiatric Hospital campus, 28 Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers from South Carolina joined forces last Sunday with a Pennsylvania-New Jersey team to prepare hot meals for displaced victims of the storm.
Charles Ackerman of Harleyville, S.C., led a five-vehicle caravan from the Palmetto State on a more than 14-hour trek to the Ancora site. His team relieved another South Carolina team and was itself relieved on Wednesday—a schedule that assured an uninterrupted flow of lunches and dinners to people enduring sub-freezing temperatures without food or permanent shelter.
The volunteers bundled layers of clothing against the New Jersey cold, which hovered in the low 40s by day and dipped to the mid-20s overnight. Up at 4:30 a.m. and to the cook tents by 5, they began each day thawing out frozen water lines, starting generators for lighting, and firing up large propane-fueled cook vats and ovens to prepare lunch. Once that meal was on its way, they gave vats, ovens, and food preparation surfaces and tools a thorough cleaning before starting the evening meal—a seemingly endless day broken by a night’s sleep, only to begin again in the morning. Before breakfast and dinner, they set aside time for a short devotion and prayer.
As food preparation took place in the cook tents, outside semitrailers carrying canned and packaged food waited to be unloaded. Forklifts shifted pallets of canned goods, breads and rolls, milk, Styrofoam meal containers they call “clamshells,” and prepackaged plastic eating utensils with paper napkins, salt and pepper.
As reports came in from affected areas, a volunteer in the cook tent tallied the number of servings needed at each location. Volunteers filled and labeled large, insulated containers called “Cambros” with meals—each one could hold as many as 200 servings. Forklifts transported the Cambros to staging areas and loaded them onto waiting Red Cross trucks for delivery to places as far as two hours away from the cook site.
The volunteers had to prepare an unpredictable number of meals in cold and often chaotic circumstances. “Blue hats,” distinguished from the yellow hats worn by most volunteers, oversaw the operation, solving problems as they arose. Chaplains helped keep the volunteers focused on the mission’s goal: to show the love of Christ by feeding hungry people in need. Linda Sealy, a cook tent volunteer from Crossroads Community Church in Summerville, S.C, said, “With hungry people waiting for the food we’re preparing, it’s important we do the work without complaining or bickering.”
One of the first meals the team prepared included ravioli. It stuck to the bottom of the huge pot, keeping the rest of the pot from heating properly. Volunteers solved the problem by continuously stirring the ravioli until it reached the required temperature of 165 degrees. Then they received word that they needed to prepare 3,000 more servings, and the meals needed to be ready in time for delivery to areas that had a curfew. They did it. According to volunteer Charles Ackerman, “We put out 7,600 meals last night.” In total the group prepared 34,000 meals in the three days it was in New Jersey.
Although the hurricane victims probably didn’t think about the teams that prepared their food, the Red Cross drivers did. A yellow hat accompanied one driver on an evening run. He reported afterward that the driver introduced him to the people he was serving as “the guy who prepared your food.”