By the time Greg Lovell emerged from the muck-filled floodwaters rising swiftly in the wake of Hurricane Florence, he was utterly spent.

The past 20 hours had been a blur. Driven by little but adrenaline, the former EMT and a few other neighbors had been working to rescue neighbors from the increasingly submerged community of Cross Creek in Hampstead, N.C. 

And the water just kept rising.

Cross Creek was one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by Florence’s wrath — at least 70 of its 250 houses ruined as the Cape Fear River swelled to historic proportions.

Operation BBQ
With floodwaters making many roads impassable, accessing towns impacted by Florence required logistical planning.

Jeremy Lock and Mercury One, courtesy and with all permissions granted via Operation BBQ Relief

Lovell didn’t yet know the full extent of the damage, but he knew his body was running on empty. Then, in the fading twilight, David Marks appeared, a hot meal in hand.

“This guy was at the edge of the water, just passing out barbecue,” Lovell recalls.

It was a pivotal moment. The food, he says, was a reminder not to give up. “You have to have faith that if you keep going, things will be provided for you,” he adds.

This wasn’t just barbecue. It was the special brand of soulful warmth that Operation BBQ Relief brings to disaster zones.

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Volunteers with Operation BBQ Relief provide more than food to disaster survivors.

Jeremy Lock and Mercury One, courtesy and with all permissions granted via Operation BBQ Relief

“I’ve seen firsthand that a barbecue meal can mean the difference between life and death,” says Operation BBQ Relief Chief Marketing Officer Marks, who also works on the front lines.

That sustenance helped Lovell keep going, and he was credited with saving at least 33 people from an uncertain fate. It kept him going even after that night, as he helped protect his neighborhood from looters. As he began to help Cross Creek rebuild.

Operation BBQ Relief stayed in the area for more than two weeks. “They didn’t just pass out food and go home,” Lovell said. “They fellowshipped with you, and told you that people cared. Those small things people take for granted can mean the world when you’re struggling.”

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A resident from Cross Creek recharges with a hot barbecue meal from Operation BBQ Relief. 

Jeremy Lock and Mercury One, courtesy and with all permissions granted via Operation BBQ Relief

Food for the Frontlines

When disaster hits, OBR mobilizes dozens of volunteers, including a core group of competitive barbecue chefs, Marks explains. Still reeling from Florence, he was heading straight into the chaos left behind after Hurricane Michael’s swift and terrifying devastation of the Gulf Coast of Florida.

Already, his team was working to secure sites in Panama City and in Tallahassee to help feed the hard-hit Panhandle. Airlink, an air service delivering critical cargo and first responders to disaster scenarios, was transporting his team to places with impassable roads and shuttered airports. Once they were on the ground, it would take about a day and a half for them to raise their massive food production facilities on sweltering asphalt.

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Dave Marks presents Greg Lovell, Cross Creek hero, with the 2 millionth hot barbecue meal that OBR produced in seven years. "His actions exemplify what the value of a hot meal is," Marks says. 

Jeremy Lock and Mercury One, courtesy and with all permissions granted via Operation BBQ Relief

They’ve had a lot of practice.

OBR formed in May 2011 after two pro barbecue chefs loaded up some competition-rated smokers and headed to Joplin, Missouri. The city of about 52,000 had been walloped by a catastrophic EF5-rated multiple-vortex tornado, which killed 150 people and injured more than 1,000.

Volunteers from competition teams from eight states answered the call to help, convening to help feed displaced families, police, fire, National Guard and emergency personnel, serving more than 120,000 meals over 13 days.

The team’s ranks have since swelled with volunteers and world champion barbecuers. One co-founder has appeared on the competitive cooking show “Chopped,” and Marks himself appeared on another, “Smoked.”

Now, OBR is a well-oiled machine responsible for serving millions of meals to people impacted by disaster.

Imagine 25 commercial smokers with enough power and heft to smoke 15,000 pounds of meat at a time; a commercial tilt skillet with enough capacity to make 750 sides in 45 minutes; refrigerated 18 wheelers hauling in meat; an assembly line to rub it all down, load it into the roiling smoke, pack it up and load it out.

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Operation BBQ Relief's Dave Marks and Greg Lovell share a hug. 

Jeremy Lock and Mercury One, courtesy and with all permissions granted via Operation BBQ Relief

The Healing Power of Barbecue

It’s a mass-production effort. But it’s still deeply personal. When Marks handed out the 2 millionth hot barbecue meal OBR had served in seven years, it was into Lovell’s waiting hands.

"His actions exemplify what the value of a hot meal is," he says.

One of the OBR’s central tenets is the belief in the healing power of barbecue, Marks explains. “A hot meal makes a huge difference to people who have been suffering, who have been without power, first responders who have been eating nothing but MREs — a hot meal will change you," he says.

Beyond the flood of nutrients to a tired body, the energy-giving boost of protein to worn muscles, a hot meal also offers an emotional lift, which cannot be underestimated.

Excellent barbecue, specifically, can remind people of good times. “And it reminds you you’ll have more good times in the future," Marks adds, "and that helps you heal yourself not only physically, but spiritually.”

Lovell’s recollection of the plate of food he received that night — the one that gave him the strength to head back into the floodwaters to help even more neighbors and rescue a number of their pets — is one of a sense of warm encouragement.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Here’s a plate of food.’ It was, ‘We heard there was a need for help, we care about you, and here’s a hot plate of barbecue," Lovell said. "We wanted you to know that people still care about each other and we’re here to help you, and that was one of those pivotal moments that you need to keep going.”