Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Philip Harte, with his smoker, feeds Florida National Guardsmen in the Keys post Irma.
Lawyer’s burning mission: Feeding first responders
By Jan Pudlow
Maybe it was his Golden Rule upbringing by a military dad, maybe it was his Boy Scouts Bronze Palm credentials, or maybe it was remembering being an 11-year-old survivor of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and eating cold canned soup for the three and a half weeks that his family was without power.
But Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Philip Harte knew how important hot food would be to first responders dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the hardest hit Florida Keys.
So he hitched up his custom-built 250-gallon smoker, along with 300 pounds of chicken breasts and drumsticks, and headed south to feed the National Guard that hadn’t had a hot meal in a week.
“I live on Miami Beach. I woke up Friday morning with a sigh of relief and a heavy heart,” Harte said, two days before Miami dodged a bullet, as Irma wobbled west and smacked Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 hurricane with 135 mph wind gusts and storm surges of 10-14 feet.
“I realized it was likely to hit the Keys, and the Keys had 24 hours to get ready or get out. I had survivors’ remorse. I knew they wouldn’t be able to prepare like the people in Miami. I knew the Keys were in the cross-hairs of the hurricane.”
Remembering his harrowing experience going through Andrew as a kid — when he received a letter of commendation from then Gov. Lawton Chiles for his service as the youngest amateur radio operator helping with communications at the Emergency Operations Center — he knew helping in the aftermath of the hurricane would be critical.
When you barbecue as a hobby (with a corporation named Legally Smoked BBQ for catering gigs in the future), Harte knew that was his way to give hands-on help. But he had his own logistical nightmare to maneuver.
First, he made contact with someone at Fire Rescue 20 at Islamorada, who said come and he would be given access to the Keys, but there was no guarantee.
Next, Harte started calling local stores for BBQ wood. There was none to be found. It was all bought up, as Miami had prepared for the storm. He reached out to Southern Fuel Wood in Newberry, explaining he was trying to cook for first responders. Twenty minutes later, that company put him in touch with two customers who own the John Abell Corporation, a construction supply company in Cutler Bay. Eric Abell gave him 16 bags of wood.
Now, to find the chicken. Using Instagram, Harte reached out to Costco, which had an excess supply of raw chicken it would greatly reduce in price, so Harte walked away with 110 pounds of breasts and 190 pounds of drumsticks for $271.
On Friday after the storm, Harte loaded his SUV with hurricane supplies donated by his friends, and coolers full of chicken.
“It was packed to the brim. There was not even room for my girlfriend to go with me.”
Bright and early Saturday morning, Harte loaded up his smoker and headed to the Keys. Once at Islamorada, they told him the rescue efforts were heading south, so he went to the Marathon Fire Rescue Station, where he was eventually directed to set up at Stanley Switlik Elementary School.
The National Guard’s Delta Unit was positioned to sleep there.
“I started cooking and cooking and cooking. I had never cooked 300 pounds of chicken before in my life!” Harte said, of feeding more than 75 and packing up even more BBQ dinners in to-go boxes.
“They all told me they hadn’t had a hot meal in a week. I was getting a lot of smiles and handshakes. I heard so many stories. One of the soldiers said, ‘I’m looking for Harte. I hear he’s a prosecutor.’
“Turns out he was a City of Miami police officer and he gave me a fist bump and said, ‘I appreciate you being out here.’”
One National Guardsman posted about Harte’s big-hearted BBQ gesture on Facebook, where it got more than 15,000 shares.
Harte admits he couldn’t do it alone.
“This is a little embarrassing, but true. I didn’t eat breakfast Saturday morning and didn’t eat throughout the day. I had dehydration working behind the hot grills of 100-degree-plus heat,” Harte said.
High-school friends Sean Mirmelli, and his sister, Nicole Mirmelli, who grew up in the Keys, were out distributing supplies to those in need. They brought Harte big industrial fans and helped turn the meat on the grill and serve.
He also thanks Brett Werner who owns Kids Deli, a local lunch delivery service, and his daughter, Tess Elizabeth Werner, for helping prep all the food at their deli.
When you love to cook, that’s the first way you think of to give back.
“Food makes people feel better. It gives them energy to work. It brings a feeling of love,” Harte said.
Like he was taught at home and at his job as a prosecutor, “If you think it’s the right thing to do, do it.”