Against the backdrop of a national convention on volunteerism, a New Orleans convoy packed with the ingredients for a South Louisiana food and music festival pushed off Monday for shattered Joplin, Mo., where thousands of beleaguered homeowners are awakening to the full import of rebuilding after the worst tornado in modern American history carved a broad scar across the face of their city.
A convoy of local chefs and musicians load up the trucks and busses with seafood, cooking equipment and volunteers to be dispatched to Joplin, Mo., from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, Monday, June 6, 2011, to encourage volunteers doing tornado relief there. The event is headed by “The Taste Buds, Three Chefs, One Mission” made up by Chefs Greg Reggio, Hans Limburg and Gary Darling.
“We know what it’s like to be in a situation where you’ve lost everything. And we know the importance of being able to lift spirits,” said Greg Reggio, an owner of Zea’s and Semolina restaurants.
Behind him, a convoy bearing a donated soundstage, a generator, cooking gear and supplies of frozen shrimp, oysters, fish and alligator — with the chefs to prepare it — prepared to leave the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Reggio said they planned to arrive in Joplin at 2 a.m., set up a stage in a local park, and for three hours late Tuesday afternoon provide free food to homeowners and volunteers alike, with music by fiddler Amanda Shaw.
As it happened, nearby at the Convention Center, about 4,500 visitors from around the country, many of them clergy or directors of nonprofit groups, were beginning a three-day National Conference on Volunteering and Service devoted to sharing best practices in the universe of volunteer work.
chefs-reggio-bush.jpgView full sizeChef Greg Reggio chats with Neil Bush, chairman of the Points of Light Institute, as local chefs and musicians load up trucks and buses for a volunteer mission to Joplin, Mo.
Associated with that was a separate session hosted by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, which invited clergy and other workers from churches, synagogues and masjids to browse among federal health, housing and education programs that might help them with their local neighborhood work.
Just before the volunteers’ departure, John Gomperts, director of the volunteer service agency AmeriCorps, said the tornado-damaged landscape in Joplin is beyond his powers of description.
One indicator of its scope he took from a weekend visit: The tornado that hit the city of 50,000 two weeks ago left more debris to be carted off than the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
Yet, as Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in seeing off the convoy, the American tradition is “to run toward trouble, rather than away from it.”
Gomperts said AmeriCorps has established a central clearinghouse in Joplin that in two weeks has logged in 14,000 volunteers.
chefs-handtruck.jpgView full sizeThe plan to put on a three-hour music and food fest is designed to encourage volunteers doing tornado relief in Joplin, Mo.
Reggio and some chef-friends said they have already made one relief run to the Tuscaloosa area, which was badly damaged by a cluster of violent tornadoes in late April. He said they knew a trip to Joplin was in their future when Landrieu, who last month established a “Pay it Forward” fund principally to aid victims of Mississippi River flooding, asked them to make the trip now.
The chefs and their friends are not the only New Orleanians who have responded to the tornado disasters.
For example, members of Metairie’s Celebration Church have made one relief trip to the Tuscaloosa area with supplies and gift cards, said its pastor, the Rev. Dennis Watson. They soon will travel to Joplin to advise pastors and others on setting up long-term counseling centers, operating off their own Katrina experiences here, Watson said.
Reggio is one of the so-called Taste Buds, three friends and business partners — the others are Gary Darling and Hans Limburg — who do occasional charity work outside the restaurant business. They and others recently held a weekend fundraiser for restaurateur Michael Bordelon of Liuzza’s, who was seriously injured in an automobile accident.
Reggio said the Joplin trip is a tiny contribution to a huge task, but is intended as an emotional lift as clean-up fatigue sets in.
“Remember how it felt when the Saints came back to the Superdome — how it felt in there?” he asked. “We won’t have that effect — but if just for an hour or so we can help people forget just a little about their struggle up there, we can let ‘em know we care about them.
“We know what they’ve been through. We know they helped us when we needed help. So we’re paying it forward.”