KEARNEY, Neb. — If two floods hadn't drenched Nebraska this year, Dick Cochran would still be focused on finishing his Hot Meals USA trailer.
But that murky rising water pushed him to get that not-quite-ready mobile food trailer on the road anyhow, and he hasn't looked back.
"Before the floods, it was tough to tell people in Kearney that a disaster trailer like this was needed. People would look around and say, 'Nothing ever happens here.' In one day, that changed," Cochran, founder and executive director of Hot Meals USA, told the Kearney Hub.
Between March 30 and July 31, Hot Meals USA served 6,820 free meals to flood victims.
That includes 2,100 meals in Nebraska and Iowa in March, and, since July 9, 4,720 meals at 15 separate events in Kearney.
He credits much of this to his wife, Cheryl. "She wouldn't let me give up," he said.
Through Tuesday, he will offer food in seven Buffalo County towns as part of the Neighbor to Neighbor Free Community Barbecue events offered by the Farm Credit Services of America and its partners.
Cochran never expected to use his trailer so soon, so frequently or so close to home.
"I believe if we would have sat back and said, 'The trailer isn't done, so we can't help,' the results would have been much different," he said. "Kearney is the last place I wanted to be doing the majority of our work, but I have to wonder, who would have taken our place?"
Not long ago, a volunteer serving meals from the trailer asked a couple if they wanted seconds. The woman didn't say yes or no. Instead, she said, "We have 4 feet of water in our basement." Quickly, the volunteer sat down to listen to their story.
"Everyone we feed has a story," Cochran said. "When flood victims share that story, you stop what you're doing, sit down and listen. That's as important as a meal."
Cochran speaks from experience. A former restaurateur in Joplin, Missouri, Cochran helped feed first responders in the beleaguered days after a deadly tornado battered Joplin in 2011. He and Cheryl lived 11 miles outside the city.
Their home was spared.
Several years ago, he and Cheryl moved to Elm Creek, Nebraska, and opened Dickey's Barbeque Pit in Kearney (now Mom & Dad's Bar-B-Que.) He was determined to create a disaster food service.
In October 2017, he founded the nonprofit Hot Meals USA and started raising money.
By February 2018, he had signed a memorandum of understanding with the American Red Cross. It will call him for help after wildfires, floods, tornadoes and other disasters.
By April 2018, Cochran had purchased the 24-foot-long trailer for $120,000, partly with a sizable gift from Ron and Nita Payne.
He finalized procedures and details with the Nebraska Association of Emergency Management. The Dawn Rotary Club, to which he belongs, received a $75,000 grant to outfit and equip the trailer.
His target completion date was late this summer, but Mother Nature had other ideas.
When floods hit in mid-March, Cochran, newly retired, received a request to feed residents and workers in Dannebrog, Nebraska.
"The simple thing would've been to say that the trailer's not ready, that we're not going to do it," Cochran said. "But we had volunteers and enough equipment that we could do something."
Cochran took the trailer. He couldn't use it yet, but it bore the Hot Meals USA logo. He cooked some of the food before the trip. In Dannebrog, he and volunteers grilled hamburgers outside and used the kitchen in a church social hall. They set up two buffet lines with ham, turkey, green beans andmashed potatoes and fed 250 people.
Donations covered the $1,600 cost. The biggest donors were Prince of Peace Church, St. James Catholic Church and the Knights of Columbus, all of Kearney.
Suddenly, requests rolled in like the floodwaters. Hot Meals USA went to Wood River, Gibbon and Kearney in Nebraska and Hamburg, Iowa.
Ready or not, the nonprofit was off and running.
After the July flood, it ran faster. Meals were served at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce and the Salvation Army. Cochran has never fed fewer than 150 people per site. He feeds anyone who shows up, no questions asked.
On July 13, he and Cheryl served 800 meals. First they prepared 500 meals of meat, potatoes and green beans for the Red Cross. That afternoon, they served 300 meals in the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce parking lot.
Because he's never certain how many people will show up, he prepares for more than anticipated.
"We're a kitchen, not a diner," he said. "One person might take home food for the whole family, and that's OK."
He's never lacked volunteers to serve the food. They've ranged from a high school girls softball team to employees of area businesses to members of churches and service clubs.
Cochran hopes to have the trailer fully equipped by September. Drywall is going up. The ceiling is insulated. Air conditioning will be put in. Griddles have arrived. He is installing a triple sink, ovens, an ice cream server, electricity, plumbing and propane tanks. A large awning outside will withstand winds up to 50 mph.
Meanwhile, the phone keeps ringing. Because of demands in Kearney, Cochran had to decline an invitation from Percival, Iowa, which sits on the flooded Missouri River. Hot Meals USA will go to Grant, Nebraska, in September. He's had requests from drenched northeast Nebraska. He's been invited to the York County Fair simply to bring in donations.
"We were the best-kept secret in town, but now the word has gotten out," he said.
Nikki Erickson, executive director of the United Way of the Kearney Area, can't say enough about Hot Meals USA. She and her husband, Josh, own Team Concepts, a business that sustained extensive flood damage July 9. After exhausting days mopping up, they were grateful for Hot Meals USA.
"We were able to sit down for the first time each day. The food was delicious. Even our children were delighted," Erickson said. "Having a place to go for a meal was one less problem to solve. It went a longway to help restore our hope."
Cochran said, "This is so much more than feeding people. Being there sharing the tough times with people lets them know they are not alone. We see heartache up close and personal. We feel what they feel. As long as there's a need, we'll feed."