On June 23, 2016, a devastating flood hit the state of West Virginia, taking 26 lives and damaging or destroying more than 1,200 homes. Jim McGrody, Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services, and three UNC REX chefs, Ryan Conklin, Paul Berens, and Steve Pexton volunteered with Mercy Chefs to cook meals for victims, volunteers and first responders in Greenbrier County. In this blog post, Chef Jim McGrody shares his experiences in White Sulphur Springs and Rainelle, West Virginia with his team.
(L-R) Steve Pexton, Ryan Conklin, Jim McGrody, and Paul Berens
Rainelle West Virginia, social media and an old friend
How those things will permanently affect four UNC REX chefs from North Carolina
Last weekend while watching TV, I saw a news clip about the massive flooding that was occurring in West Virginia. As I watched I thought to myself, I know people in West Virginia, and I hoped that they were OK. And like possibly many Americans that was all the thought I really gave it. I hoped that they would be safe but even though it is a state close to North Carolina, it seemed a world away.
That all changed when my old friend and classmate from the Culinary Institute of America, Sue Bastian and her husband Paul Brian Ciciora, started posting pictures on Facebook of the massive destruction. We had been friends for years and followed each other lives through social media.
The pictures on Facebook showed me how they were smack in the middle of a major disaster. I was glued to what was going on there. Sue was a great friend of mine while we were students at the CIA some 26 years ago. I was worried and started thinking about how I could help.
I reached out to her husband Paul who was on site working at a mobile kitchen in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. I asked him how I could help and he told me to check out the nonprofit group he was volunteering with. Paul is a full-time chef at the Greenbrier resort. The resort was closed due to the flooding, so many of the chefs that worked there were volunteering to help feed hundreds of people with absolutely no way to cook food for themselves. It was a community in absolute distress.
The nonprofit he directed me to was Mercy Chefs. This group is out of Virginia and was born out of the need following Hurricane Katrina. They travel the country going from disaster to disaster, helping people not only through nourishment but through spiritual healing as well. I checked them out and knew I had to be part of this. I reached back out to Paul and said that I wanted to help. He gave me the number to the chef in charge, Fred Tiess. After a few emails to Mercy Chefs and to Fred, I saw they desperately needed help. They pride themselves on professionally prepared meals served to people in need. I wanted on this train and said I want to volunteer. I was going to drive to West Virginia some 4 1/2 hours way. I quickly thought of my UNC REX Healthcare chefs and realized that we could use them too.
I texted Ryan Conklin, Paul Berens, and Steve Pexton late Sunday night June 26 and laid out my plan. I told them about my friend, and how I connected on Facebook and how the town they lived in was devastated. I told them about Mercy Chefs and how they needed help and would they want to come with me. In very short order I got return texts: “count me in,” “when do we go” and “hell yeah.” I was so proud of them — they had only basic information but they wanted to help and jumped right on this.
So there we were the next day with blessings from UNC REX leadership (who rock, by the way), driving from Raleigh. Our truck was loaded down with suitcases, knife kits, chef coats, aprons and side towels.
Chef Ryan Conklin drives the Mercy Chefs truck filled with knife kits, chef coats, aprons, side towels and food.
We arrived in White Sulphur Springs about 1 p.m. As we rolled down the highway, everything looked normal. Every once in a while, we would see some damage to trees and dirt and debris on the road but nothing serious that would make us believe a disaster had occurred. We then got off the exit to White Sulphur Springs that all changed.
Our first image was massive destruction of the creek beds, cars upside down, sheds, garages and debris all over the place. We saw a lumber yard that looked like it had been blown up. Construction crews were hard at work everywhere. Front end loaders, bobcats, dump trucks all over the place. People were swarming trying to clean up this major devastation. We saw tractor trailers literally ripped apart and left in a pile of shredded metal. It was humbling to see such damage.
We didn’t really know where to go so we pulled into a grocery store parking lot. When we did we saw Army medevac helicopters, coming and going. There were Army medics and civilians giving out tetanus shots, cleaning supplies and bottled water. We had never seen anything like this.
We got to the Mercy Chefs site and were immediately impressed. We met the key players and told them to put us to work. Lunch had already been served so we started to work on dinner. We diced onions, roasted pork loins, cut cabbage and made desserts. We made side salads and generally did whatever they asked of us. This was not our gig — we were volunteers and wanted to help in any way. So if that meant wash dishes or take trash to the dumpster, that is what we did. It was very satisfying to be there.
What we saw was an organization that was deeply committed to helping people. The permanent staff of Mercy Chefs are amazing. Their head chef Walter was a former US Marine Corps cook that had an amazing culinary skill set. He was totally devoted to his mission. In fact, he told me it was his calling. And by the way, it was definitely his kitchen (in a very good way). He was grateful that we had come all the way from North Carolina.
After that meal, we went back to our hotel 30 miles away. There was no water or electricity in the town we were serving. We all said we felt guilty that we had the ability to shower and be in air conditioning. This was something that many in White Sulphur Springs were weeks and possibly months away from having.
Chef Jim McGrody arranges supplies in the mobile kitchen
The next day we went back to White Sulphur Springs to prep and cook for lunch, but our new mission would be Rainelle, W. Va. This town will forever have an effect on all of us. It certainly has changed me.
This small community of Rainelle was about a 45-minute drive from where we were located. We were told that if you think White Sulphur (as the locals call it) is bad, wait to you get to Rainelle. When we got there, we saw that indeed it was much worse.
White Sulphur had teams of construction crews, grocery stores, food trucks and BBQ tents — Rainelle had none of that.
What we saw was an active military operation. The West Virginia Army National Guard was in charge here. They were everywhere — Humvees, military police, state police and Guardsmen everywhere. They had heavy equipment moving material that was placed in front of homes and businesses. It was bedlam. The stench was at times overbearing. It was a totally different feel than White Sulphur. It was far worse off and it was 6 days since the flood had occurred. The people were visibly torn apart emotionally. They had all lost everything they had ever owned.
What we did not see was adequate port-a -potties, hot food and disinfectants. We had people ask us if we had bleach and another ask us if we had hand sanitizer. It was sad to see all of this unfold in front of us.
We went for a short walk to survey the area when we first got there. We saw cars that were completely covered in mud inside and out. All of these cars were totally destroyed. Houses with water marks 5-6 feet up the side were commonplace. People were scraping mud out of their houses and pulling out sheet rock. There were piles of garbage everywhere we looked. We knew we needed to get to work.
So we set up operations on a corner lot that used to be a car dealer, right next to a trailer dealer. The trailers in that lot were completely destroyed. They looked like a can opener had ripped open the metal. Everything around us was destroyed. People were cleaning out their business all along Main Street. The Army was just down the road using front end loaders to clear debris, which was everywhere. All the homes in the downtown area and I mean all of them were destroyed.
The thing that I remember most was an immense sense of community. You could tell that before the flood, this was a close-knit town. It was even closer in the face of this disaster. Everyone was so nice and thankful that we were there. They were amazed that we had come from another state and were willing to help. We were like, are you kidding me, this is an honor to be able to help out. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that day.
One of the commodities’ that we had was fresh fruit — we had bananas, apples, and oranges. People were so happy to see them. Fresh food was pretty scarce at that time. We also had BBQ pork and beans, peach cobbler and a cold marinated vegetable salad. It was a meal many had not seen in more than six days.
About an hour after being there Ryan Conklin found a 5-foot statue of a chef, like the kind you see in some restaurants. We moved him over to our site and put a cardboard sign on him saying we had fresh hot cooked meals and fresh fruit. It was pretty cool. The people in the neighborhood stopped by and took pictures of it.
It was then that I noticed something that we had not seen since we arrived. People were smiling. They loved the chef statue and for just that one moment they forgot about their loss and just smiled. I couldn’t believe how powerful that was. Kudos to Ryan for making their day just a little bit better. We took the chef back home with us to Raleigh and we will clean it up and bring it to our café. It will be dedicated to the people of Rainelle, W. Va.
We plated up about 200 meals and we split them up into four trucks. Many of the people in the town could not get to us, so we went to them. Ryan, Steve, Paul and I went to go find some people to feed. Paul and I were on the tailgate of the truck as Ryan drove through the neighborhood. We handed out meals to people as we pulled up beside their homes. Everyone was so appreciative. It was very emotional for Paul and I and we both got a little teary-eyed when we saw how a simple hot meal had such an effect on people.
Steve Pexton, Ryan Conklin, and Paul Berens help prepare meals with their fellow volunteers.
The saddest thing was we learned about the people that had died. A total of 26 people died and 13 of them came from this little town of Rainelle. One of the ones who died was bed ridden and lived alone. He drowned while lying in bed. We learned about the animals that drowned and how some people barely made it out of the water. It was very touching and very sad.
After we were done, we met up with the Mercy Chefs again at a small church. We all got together and they said a prayer for our safe return to Raleigh. We had only been there two days but we felt very connected to these people. They are an amazing organization and I am so glad our paths crossed.
The next day we drove back to North Carolina, we all reflected on what we had seen and done. We felt proud to have gone but were all sad that we were leaving. Had it not been for a few commitments, we all would have stayed longer.
When I got home, I looked around my house saw the furniture, pictures, and my dogs. I couldn’t imagine all of it being gone, with no way to ever get it back. None of the people in Rainelle had flood insurance. It was all just gone.
I am humbled by this experience and I want to send a message to all that read this, please reach out to groups like Mercy Chefs and volunteer or donate money. They do great things. We will be lifelong friends and a big fan of theirs forever.
To the people of Rainelle and White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., you will always be in our thoughts and prayers.
-The UNC REX Chefs from North Carolina