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Volunteers prepare the food to feed to victims and first responders involved in the recent flooding in the Hammond and Baton Rouge, La. area as part of Operation BBQ Relief. The organization includes some of the top pitmasters in the country who hail from DeSoto County.

Courtesy photo

Last month, when historic and prolonged amounts of rainfall struck parts of the Hammond and Baton Rouge, La. areas, a weather event that flooded homes, businesses and left many homeless, DeSoto County joined in providing relief supplies to the victims.

That was not surprising, as the Mid-South is considered one of the most giving areas in the country when the need arises.

But at the same time, there was a group from DeSoto County already with their "boots on the ground" and their world-championship smokers and grills up and cooking to make sure those affected by the flooding were fed well.

They are part of a close-knit community of championship teams and pitmasters from several states who are called Operation BBQ Relief, or OBR for short.

These are not just your backyard weekend grillers. They represent some of the best in 'cue in the country, such as John Wheeler of Southaven, part of the championship team Natural Born Grillers, and OBR state lead Mark Lambert of Olive Branch, who is behind another championship team known as Sweet Swine O' Mine.

Wheeler said Operation BBQ Relief was a response to the 2011 Joplin, Mo. tornado, when grillers in the Kansas City area came to feed the victims, first responders and relief workers for the city that was torn apart by the twister.

Wheeler started his connection with OBR when another deadly tornado struck Moore, Okla. in May, 2013.

"I was seeing all that on television and I was wondering what more I could do, so I contacted Operation BBQ Relief," Wheeler said. "I loaded up a big smoker and I was there for a week and we served 144,000 meals. That's where I got into it and I've been pretty much hooked ever since."

Among the disaster events Wheeler's team has responded to have been tornadoes in Illinois, Texas, Mayflower and Vilonia, Ark. and in Holly Springs, along with floods in the Carolinas.

Once the grillers arrive and set up, it's all about the cooking with little time to rest.

"It seems like it's all day, every day, 16 hours a day, but it's the adrenaline that keeps you going because you know there's guys out there who need it and there's people that don't have anything, so you do all you can do," Wheeler said.

The volunteers see a lot of people during their time and the heartstrings naturally tug away, said Wheeler, adding the grilling and feeding is still primarily top of mind.

"You go out there and you see these people and they've lost everything they own in just a matter of seconds," Wheeler said. "You want to hug 'em and talk to 'em but you still got to get everybody fed at the same time. You want to be a worker and a counselor and everything else."

The latest response in Louisiana was especially difficult, due to the heat and humidity, Wheeler said. He called the conditions there "brutal."

"It was 100 degrees and it was a special kind of humidity," Wheeler said. "It was like walking through water. We had people go down twice and we had to call an ambulance to get them help for heat exhaustion."

Nothing provided by the volunteers is done without donations, which are always welcome.

"We're all nonprofit and we're all volunteer," Wheeler said. "Nobody gets paid, we're donations only. It costs about a dollar a meal when it's all said and done. You donate a dollar to us, it feeds one people. You donate 10 dollars, it feeds 10."

When the most-recent trip was made, Operation BBQ Relief fed more than 314,000 meals in a two-week period from its Hammond, La. base, "because that was the only area that wasn't flooded," Wheeler said. On average, about 25,000 meals a day are served.

"It's hard to wrap your mind around 25,000 meals a day," Wheeler said. "Until you consider it's like feeding every person in Horn Lake every day, or Hernando, for free. It doesn't hit home until you put it in some kind of perspective."

Among the more than 314,000 meals served last month in Louisiana was the one millionth meal for Operation BBQ Relief in its existence.

Wheeler encourages everyone to get behind the effort. You may not know how to season or turn a rib or brisket, but he said OBR needs donations.

"Do what you can. Donate money, donate stuff, donate food, do whatever you can do," he said.

Barbecue is a welcome commodity in a time of extreme stress, hurt and confusion for the survivors.

"Barbecue is comfort food, it's an American tradition," Wheeler said. "Barbecue is something you can relate to. They're out there and working and they've lost everything and someone brings you a meal that barbecued and that's something you can relate, like being out in your backyard with your parents and family. It makes you feel a little better."

Wheeler said those interested in learning more about Operation BBQ Relief and donate to them can do so through the website, operationbbqrelief.org.

Bob Bakken is Staff Writer and may be reached at 662-429-6397 ext. 240.

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