Kevin Tomlinson sounded surprisingly upbeat for a man whose hometown has just been flattened by one of the meanest hurricanes in the history of the United States.
He dropped everything Thursday night, shuttered his coffee shop in Flowery Branch and headed south to Fort Myers, Florida, where Hurricane Ian made landfall last week, visiting the city with winds strong enough to uproot trees and flooding high enough to swallow the better part of a one-story house.
Tomlinson moved to Georgia in 1993 and owns Whole Being Cafe with his wife in Flowery Branch.
For the next week, he and his wife will camp out in Next Level Church in Fort Myers, working alongside a couple hundred volunteers and serving more than 20,000 meals each day to people still reeling from Ian’s thrashing.
“We are mostly sleeping in the church, just on cots and mats and couches and chairs, wherever we can sleep,” he said. “We got portable tent showers out here behind the church where we step into the tent and shower with a hose.”
The effort is organized by Mercy Chefs, a faith-based relief organization that serves restaurant-quality meals to victims of natural disasters. It is the sixth time Tomlinson has volunteered with the organization, but the first time in his hometown.
Tomlinson said on Friday around noon that he hadn’t yet had the chance to take in all the devastation that surrounds him.
“We drove in late last night,” he said. “We’re kind of in this one area, so my vision is still limited to the devastation. … If I really get an opportunity to drive to some of the landmarks that I knew growing up, or enjoyed as a kid or a high school boy driving around town, and saw it now, it would be heart wrenching to see it.”
A favorite spot of his youth, Sanibel Island, was visited by “biblical storm surge,” as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis put it during a press conference last week.
“The causeway to the island is virtually gone,” Tomlinson said.
He thanked God that all of his family and friends are safe.
“I'm waiting for that moment when one of them are going to walk through our line today and I get to feed them,” he said, laughing.
The menu on Friday included jambalaya, pork tenderloin and peach cobbler for dessert, served out of three semi-trucks that have been converted into commercial kitchens.
“We're not making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said. “We’re cooking up gourmet food.”
Why did he seem to be in relatively good spirits given the state of his hometown?
“You come into a place like this thinking that everything is downtrodden and it’s going to be hard — and it is hard,” he said. “We start at about six o’clock every morning and go until about nine 0’clock at night — cooking, prepping, boxing, feeding, cleaning.”
He observed a sixth grade boy wearing gloves and tossing a salad, and behind him, an elderly woman cutting up tomatoes.
“You just can't help but be encouraged to see this type of dynamic and people coming together — every nationality, every color, every religious background,” he said. “A lot of the people that serve are people that have lost everything. They don't come out of an abundance, they come to serve out of a lack. They've lost everything, but they're here cooking to serve their neighbor and help feed someone that has lost it, too.”
“You come down here as a volunteer, and you think that what you’re going to do is change somebody’s life,” he said, his voice breaking. “What happens is they change your life.”