New high school culinary arts teacher part of Rockport relief effort

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Teachers lead volunteer crew in Rockport relief effort. Front row from left are Travis Hawthorne, Liberty Hill High School culinary arts teacher; Scott Dierlam; Kendi Erickson; Mike Erickson, Burnet High School culinary arts teacher; Janet Dierlam, Irene Verstiqui and Lori Greco. In back are Valerie Tarver of Burnet HS, Jordon Erickson, Jacob Tarver and the son of Scott Dierlam. (Courtesy Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

To say the high school’s new culinary arts teacher, Travis Hawthorne, has prior experience with disaster zones would be an understatement.

The former Marine of 14 years was sent to Biloxi, Mississippi, when the roofs were still dripping from Hurricane Katrina. In Lebanon, he was involved with the mass evacuation of American citizens. And he was deployed to Japan to help relief efforts after its 2011 earthquake, which was followed by a tsunami, which was followed by a nuclear reactor meltdown.

But this time was different. Calamity had come to his home turf.

Hawthorne was a principal organizer for a relief mission earlier this month in Rockport, the coastal fishing town of about 10,000 people where Harvey first made landfall.

Rockport was Hawthorne’s home for much of his childhood. His mother and grandmother still live there — or at least did before they were evacuated.

Their arrival at Hawthorne’s house in Round Rock set off a chain of events culminating in a larger-than-anticipated relief effort. What was going to be a simple family-led trip to clean up his mother’s home, snowballed into a project to feed the hundreds of households continuing to piece their lives back together after the storm.

The group became a large roster of friends and family, joined by another Army veteran and by Burnet High School culinary arts teacher Mike Erickson, who also brought some of his family.

Rockport was “like a war zone,” Erickson said. “There were piles of trash so tall you couldn’t see anything behind it.”

They set up their kitchen in a Baptist church, where Erickson said much of the roof was missing, and the bibles still in the pews were ruined from water damage. There was no electricity.

Just three blocks away was the house where Hawthorne’s mother had lived, and which was devastated by the rain and floods.

Despite the proximity, Hawthorne says he had a hard time finding the home. Gone were any street signs, landmarks, or recognizable structures that could identify one block from the next.

Still, Hawthorne and Erickson both said the outpouring of support from all over into the community—from church relief groups, Plano firefighters, school athletes, and “even Scientologists,” Erickson says— was inspiring.

A calendar the church had showed around three months booked for provided meals from groups, Erickson said.

Even more were involved from a distance. Hawthorne and Erickson’s group of 10 was supported by dozens more in the form of donated food, money, and even a 12-foot ice truck— assets Hawthorne estimates in total to have valued between $15,000 – $20,000.

Thousands were served, Hawthorne says. He rattles off the weekend’s meal itinerary in a rapid, flat tone suggesting military precision. Friday night they prepared pulled pork sandwiches, with chips, drinks, and snacks. Saturday saw pork loin for lunch, and for dinner, rice with chili, “no beans, Texas style.”

Sunday, they did not need to cook breakfast. A local Whataburger crew delivered hundreds of breakfast tacos. For lunch, rice and overnight-soaked red beans. Then they had to leave to make way for the electricians arriving to fix the church’s power. The remaining beans, rice and other food items were dropped off where they would be used to serve more families in the next few days.

Reflecting on the trip just more than a week later, Hawthorne says that seeing so many natural disasters in his life has given him perspective. Rockport, if nothing else, “renewed my appreciation of a hot shower.”

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