Many Rockport residents are still without running water, electricity, and in some cases, shelter. But getting a hot meal prepared by volunteer chefs can feel like a step toward normalcy for those in the recovering coastal city.
Pastry chefs Jeremy Mandrell and Anne Ng – co-owners and operators of Bakery Lorraine – spent four days last week away from their three San Antonio locations to help distribute meals in Rockport with Mercy Chefs, a faith-based nonprofit that provides professionally prepared meals to victims of natural disasters. Mandrell and Ng returned to the coastal town Wednesday with a van loaded with baked goods.
“We drove down sheet trays of brownies and cookie bars,” Ng told the Rivard Report Thursday. “They [Mercy Chefs] haven’t been serving dessert the past few days, which they don’t like. They like to serve a complete meal.”
Hurricane Harvey made landfall at Rockport as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25. It ripped through Rockport with 130 mph winds and the storm’s eyewall passed directly over the town, leaving a trail of ruin in its wake. Trailer homes were tossed about, roofs torn off, and entire facades stripped from buildings.
During their first trip to the hurricane-ravaged town of about 7,000, Mandrell and Ng spent nearly 16 hours a day preparing thousands of meals to serve residents for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And while pasta and rice were the staples of the meals, Ng and the other chefs showed their caring spirit by devoting considerable time and effort to create special menus.
Ng believes small touches can help disaster victims feel a sense of normalcy.
“To know that someone cares enough to serve them a real meal with fresh vegetables, beans that you have been simmering for hours, and meat that someone smoked for you all day” is reassuring, she said. “A little piece of cornbread that someone took the time to bake for you, and the same thing with dessert – A little piece of brownie or apple cake that someone took the time to make for you.
“It at least helps you remember that someone does care. There are people who care.”
Mandrell first volunteered with Mercy Chefs last year following destructive flooding in Baton Rouge, La. The organization aims to be among the very first responders to the site of a natural disaster, and the chefs make their meals with donated ingredients.
“It’s not what we’re used to working with, but I think as chefs that’s part of what you do,” Mandrell said. “Make something good out of maybe not something super good.”
In Rockport, chefs would start prepping the day’s meals at 4:30 a.m., working well into nightfall. Meals were prepared inside food-truck kitchens parked next to a severely damaged church. Showers were sparse in the volunteers’ RV lodgings, which often meant getting only a few hours of sleep bathed in the day’s sweat.
“It makes me appreciate my bakery a lot more,” Mandrell said, laughing. “It’s just a different kind of cooking.”
Ng said they were providing meals for families and individuals who were barely emerging from the immediate shock of the hurricane’s destruction. Some of them were still settling into the reality that they were without the homes and possessions they had just days earlier.
“When people first come back, they’re just shell-shocked,” Ng said. “It hasn’t started sinking in. After about a week you’ll see people start to freak out when it starts to sink in, and they realize that they’ve lost everything. Their kids have lost everything. They have to rebuild.”
But that’s when she also began seeing the residents’ resilience and strength. She recalled meeting a young oil rig worker named Ben, who came back to Rockport only to find that his home had been destroyed.
“He walked up to the kitchen truck and Jeremy was in there working, and he asked him, ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’” Ng said.
The man stayed and helped them wash dishes for days, assisting the chefs as they cooked.
“I think it’s nice for us to be able to cook for people who really need it once in a while,” Mandrell said.
“There are ways if you want to help,” Ng said. “You can roll up your sleeves and get dirty and help in that way.”
Donations to Mercy Chefs can be made here.