Floridians were on alert during the first week of October as Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction from the Caribbean to the southeastern United States. Earliest predictions showed the deadly storm making landfall near Cape Canaveral, which would have made it the first hurricane to have a direct impact on the state in a decade. Instead, the unpredictable storm made its way very close to the east coast as a Category 3 hurricane, impacting areas in its path before moving north and eventually away from the U.S. coastline.
When John Riesebeck, owner of Smokin’ J’s Real Texas BBQ on Gulfport Boulevard, learned of the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, he knew he had to do something to help the victims.
“I saw the devastation people were experiencing,” says Riesebeck. “People needed help.”
He rented a U-Haul truck from Safety Tire Auto Service Center in Gulfport. Owner John Grunden donated a large portion of the rental fee. Then Riesebeck began gathering supplies and reached out to the Gulfport community for donations. But first, he was committed to catering a wedding on St. Pete Beach on Sunday, October 9, and the Gulfport Chefs Table on Monday, October 10.
Thanks to a generous donation from Gulfport Neighbors while Riesebeck was at Chefs Table, volunteers Karen Behmke-Love and Carole Ritorto spent two hours at Walmart purchasing non-perishable items such as 4,000 bottles of water, canned goods, pet treats and toilet paper. Riesebeck collected an additional $400 in donations for his Gifts from the Gulf Coast initiative while getting ready for the Chefs Table.
“In addition to the non-perishables, we loaded up 600 pounds of pulled pork, 400 pounds of sausage and 400 pounds of baked beans, pulling the smoker behind the U-Haul,” says Riesebeck.
He left at 7 a.m. the next morning with former employee Shawn Gilmer. Riesebeck contacted the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to find out where help was needed. He also called the Red Cross to see where they were set up so he could find another location that was not receiving assistance.
“We wanted to go to a place where there was little support,” says Riesebeck.
He settled on Edgewater, located in Volusia County between Cape Canaveral and New Smyrna Beach, where there were power outages, flooding and debris strewn across roadways.
“Although not the hardest hit area on the east coast, 4,000 people were without power,” says Riesebeck.
When Riesebeck and Gilmer arrived, they were greeted by representatives from the city police and fire departments, the mayor, city council members, city manager and assistant city manager – and a steady rain that lasted all day.
They pulled U-Haul and smoker into a park where they quickly set up a tent and began cooking. City of Edgewater Councilmember Gary Conroy and his wife volunteered to help for the entire day. Then people started arriving for meals and supplies.
“For some, it was their first hot meal in five days,” says Riesebeck. “There were a lot of grateful people and a lot of smiles, but some tears too.”
According to Riesebeck’s estimation, more than 500 people were served and given supplies during the nine hours they were there.
“I especially want to thank the people of Gulfport for their support and help,” he said. “Our community always comes together no matter how far apart people are sometimes.”