Washington, DC
9/28/2018

A Disaster Response Story of Fire & Water

Wildfire hits close to home - one year later, woman travels across country to help communities affected by floods

In 2017, historic wildfires burned across California, the Tubbs fire destroyed nearly 5,000 homes. Santa Rosa resident Judy Walker was one of the lucky ones. Her children’s school burned, but her home and business were spared. While the flames didn’t impact her possessions, they had a lasting impression on Walker. “Experiencing disaster and seeing people come from all over the country to help us, that makes me want to do the same,” says Walker.

As her community responded to the 2017 fires, Walker became involved with mass feeding organization Operation BBQ Relief (OBR). OBR brings warm meals to communities affected by disaster, sometimes serving hundreds of thousands of meals in the wake of a single event.
At the same time Walker joined OBR forces for the first time, disaster response nonprofit Airlink was forming a new partnership with OBR too.

Airlink, with support from Signature Lead Partner United Airlines, helped fly OBR staff into California to join the wildfire response in 2017 and again in 2018.

Airlink also facilitated 50 of their volunteer and staff flights to Washington, DC for a mock deployment training in mid 2018, which benefited veterans and medical staff at Walter Reed National Naval Medical Center.

“Our partnership means we can effectively and efficiently move our leaders and operations experts around the country in a disaster, focusing on what we do, serving hot BBQ meals,” says OBR Chief Marketing Officer David Marks. “We can let Airlink as the experts in disaster response logistics do their thing and [we can] focus on ours.”

After volunteering in 2017, Walker ended up becoming one of the lead volunteers for the organization when fires spread across Redding, California less than one year later.

“It’s addicting actually, you get in there and help and you don’t want to leave because you want to work until it’s done,” Walker says of response work.

When Hurricane Florence moved toward North Carolina, Airlink and OBR knew they’d need to respond and were able to with help from United Airlines, its employees, and MileagePlus members.

“We sent one OBR volunteer in ahead of the storm,” explains Humanitarian Programs Manager Stephanie Steege. “They’re capable of feeding tens of thousands of people in a few days and we knew they could have the most impact if they were in position ahead of the storm.”To date, Airlink’s Signature Lead Partner United Airlines has made it possible for 26 OBR staff and volunteers to fly into North Carolina in response to Florence. One of those volunteers was Judy Walker.

Judy, a United Mileage Plus member, had never flown for disaster response before, and recognized the time sensitive nature of getting across the country to help those in need.

“It was my first time responding outside of California and wildfires. Because I’m so far away from this disaster in particular, it was so valuable to connect with Airlink,” she says. “If I had had to book this on my own I don’t think I’d have been able to get in there in time to make a difference.”

Instead, Walker and her OBR teammates made a measurable difference - serving more than 250,000 meals since the storm passed.

After spending several days distributing meals in hard-hit neighborhoods, Walker says it is clear that it will take a long time to repair the damage caused by Florence, but Airlink and United helped Operation BBQ Relief accomplish an invaluable service for families left with nothing.

“It’s that hot meal,” she says. “People just want somebody to talk to, give them a hug, and give them a warm meal.”

Left, Walker hands meals to a dad and his kids while they clear debris from their yard. 

 

Walker is now back in California, but many OBR teammates are still on the ground along with Florence responders from 13 other Airlink-supported nonprofit organizations. In total Airlink has supported 136 Florence responders’ flights, United Airlines assisting with 117 of them.

Learn more about Airlink’s response to Florence and how Airlink works with airlines and the aviation sector to help responders get to disasters.

 

Airlink connects the aviation sector and humanitarian organizations to deliver disaster responders and relief supplies in the wake of natural disasters and humanitarian crises. 

*All Images taken by Operation BBQ Relief - credit to Jeremy Lock, Mercury One