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Volunteers feed hungry victims of storm

Volunteers with the American Red Cross load containers

Volunteers with the American Red Cross load containers of hot food onto disaster relief trucks in Deer Park to be distributed in communities affected by superstorm Sandy. (Nov. 6, 2012) Credit: Daniel Brennan

In the parking lot of a Babylon Town pool park, a hardy band of American Red Cross volunteers prepared thousands of hot meals for chilly, powerless and waterlogged Long Islanders this week.

"We need plates," volunteer Sheldon Bruce said aloud, looking around his emergency response vehicle packed with about 600 packages containing burgers on buns, mixed greens and a fruit cup. He and his volunteer partner from Minnesota, Lori Olsson, would soon shove off to serve meals in flood-stricken Lindenhurst.

"Most people are cleaning up, tired and not thinking of food," explained Olsson, as she closed up their large ambulance-like truck. "Usually they don't have a lot when we show up and to have a hot meal is really something for them."

The process of preparing nearly 18,000 hot meals daily for storm-stricken Long Islanders was spread out like a D-Day invasion at the Babylon park. In one section, about 70 Arkansas members of the Southern Baptist Convention cooked, wrapped and readied the meals. At a main building nearby, several cooperating government and charitable agencies assisted, along with dozens of volunteers from places such as Oklahoma and Southern California.

"We're trying to ramp up to 40,000 meals, especially if there is the nor'easter," said site manager Mitch Henry on Tuesday, a bright red cap covering his head from the early morning chill. "We expect to be here over the next eight days or so."

The hot meal depot -- run by the Red Cross at State Trooper Fabio Buttitta Memorial Pool on Acorn Street in Deer Park -- began late last week, and has served many hard-hit communities, from Long Beach to Riverhead. Officials said the vast majority of its volunteers drove hundreds of miles to feed and help shelter Long Islanders after the storm.

"There are many people stuck in their homes and we're trying to get to them with blankets and meals," said Butch McDonald, a site coordinator from Cleveland, Okla.

Tuesday morning at the Babylon pool site, aluminum trays with chicken patties were rolled into eight large convection ovens. Mixed greens and carrots were stirred in giant pots. Wooden pallets held buns and large cardboard cartons of water and juices. And these meals were put into red insulated boxes, where they would be kept warm for disaster victims, officials said.

Though American Red Cross donations and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are providing the food, assembling the meals is the work of faith-based volunteers like Jeff Elmore, an associate pastor of a Baptist church in Arkansas.

"We make the meals, but have no contact with the victims -- we never see them," said Elmore, as scores of volunteers bustled around him in an assembly-line production in the parking lot.

"We're not doing this for the 'attaboys.' We're here because it's the right thing to do." Tuesday, the prepared meal trail ended when Bruce and Olsson in their large American Red Cross vehicle arrived at the Lindenhurst neighborhood near Venetian Shores Park. They honked their horn and a speaker announced that free hot meals were in the truck, ready for the taking.

"I heard them, I was hungry and I needed food," said Tim Costello, 49, who lives with his wife and family in a water-damaged house, not far from where the Red Cross truck stopped.

Bob Cropsey, a retired NYPD officer, picked up a Red Cross meal-- still warm in a white Styrofoam container -- to offer to an elderly man living alone in a battered house across the street. His house wasn't seriously damaged but Tuesday he tried to help out in the flood-damaged areas.

"It's phenomenal," said Cropsey about the hot meals effort. "You see these food trucks in other parts of the country and it's great to see them here in our own neighborhood when we need them."

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