Editor's Note: When a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Haiti in 2010, a handful of restaurants pitched in to help. The same response came from the industry after this year's Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the Tuscaloosa and Joplin tornados. Numerous chains have donated time, money and food, compromising their own operations to help when needed. UFPC, the supply chain arm of Yum! Brands sent a team into Joplin shortly after the May 22 tornado. Julie Riner, a senior program manager at Pizza Hut National Purchasing Co-op Inc., was among those who made the trip.
The team's objective was simply to bring food to residents, many of whom "were still in shock, searching for loved ones and not thinking about when they were going to eat," Riner said. "I can't say enough about all the people who came together to get a hot meal to those who needed it."
The following is Riner's firsthand account from the trip into Joplin:
The decision was made Monday, May 23 (one day after the tornado) to send a Pizza Hut team to Joplin, Mo. to make pizzas on the trailer and distribute them to tornado victims and emergency workers throughout the affected area. The team was made up of seven people from the Pizza Hut CORE; Randy Gross, Fernando Reyes, Clare Wilson, Jacki Shephard, Curtis Ballew, Brock Johnson and me. In addition, Steve Faflick and John Rinaldo from the Pizza Hut field office met us at the site in Joplin.
Some of our group had just returned from the tornado damaged area of Tuscaloosa, Ala., but for a few of us, this was the first trip outbound to assist folks. Even so, none of us knew exactly what to expect as we made the 6-hour drive to Joplin.
As we entered the city, it didn't take long to see how massive and devastating the tornado was. Visually, it looked like something from a movie set, or how a city would look after a bomb went off. It was absolutely surreal and mind-blowing. We found a location in a parking lot off of Range Line Road, in what seemed to be the heart of the devastation. Visibly, we could see that the local Walmart was to our east and Academy Sports and Home Depot were toward the south. These buildings, which many people thought would offer some protection, are now empty shells with massive piles of debris inside. There were many, many other businesses around the area that we could not even identify. There were mangled cars everywhere with windows blown out and debris blown in.
We quickly noticed that there were large X's spray-painted on what was left of cars, houses and buildings. After asking the National Guard, we learned that these X's were the markings of search crews, which let the outside world know the exact date the building had been searched, who had searched it, how many people were found alive, and how many were found deceased. It seemed impossible that rescue crews could have reached all of the piles within 48 hours of the tornado. With 750 people still missing, it was certainly believable that many of those people were still in the area and had yet to be recovered.
An hour after we arrived, we began prepping Personal Pan Pizzas for the next day. We then drove an hour to Bentonville, Ark., where our hotel was located. Early the next morning we headed back to the trailer and quickly started the process of more panning, proofing, topping, baking, packaging and delivering pizzas to the affected areas.
In the four days the trailer was there, the teams made and gave away more than 7,800 pizzas. Several franchisees sent folks to help make and deliver pizzas all day long; NPC, Atherton, and Jorgenson. Our dough supplier, Bama (located in Tulsa, Okla.), sent volunteers to Joplin and to our Pizza Hut trailer. The support was unbelievable!
Emergency workers and victims visited the trailer every day, and several of us helped deliver pizzas to devastated neighborhoods, including our other dough supplier, GMI, whose facility was inoperable due to electric and water supply issues caused by the storm.
In many neighborhoods, we found folks rummaging through what was left of their homes, trying to find anything and everything that may have survived the tornado. We saw many people break down when we gave them hot, fresh food. We gave hugs, words of encouragement and sympathy to many of the victims we came in contact with. We also thanked the emergency teams that visited our trailer. Many of us wished we could have stayed and continued to help Joplin residents. There is a great deal of work that remains to be done to assist those in need.