September 4, 2017 9:59 AM EDT

Kristel Meadows is not usually the type of person who breaks the rules. In fact, the 35-year-old mother of four might be the last person you’d expect to flout Houston’s citywide curfew. But at 11 p.m. last Tuesday night, an hour after the mandatory curfew went into effect, Meadows heard that firefighters who had come from Garland, Tex., as first responders had been wearing the same muddy clothes for days. They needed laundry done, and they needed it done by midnight.

So Meadows drove down the street from her home in Katy, Tex., to where the firefighters were stationed. She picked up their laundry, brought it home to wash and dry it, and then brought the clean clothes back to the firefighters. After she got home, tired and exhilarated, she thought to herself: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could feed these people something?”

To Meadows, it was just a matter of doing her part. “I have four kids. I can’t get on a boat, I can’t rescue anybody,” she says. “But I can cook a meal. I can do laundry.”

So the next morning, Meadows, her husband T.J., and their friends Jenny and Gerald Schneider set up a grill in a local parking lot. They began making leftover deer sausages and deer hamburgers from Schneider’s hunting trips. Jenny put out a call for donations on Facebook, and soon they were inundated with supplies and volunteers. They added a second grill, and then another. Jenny began posting updates every hour, then ever half hour, then every fifteen minutes.

The operation moved locations a few times, but the formula stayed the same: put out a call on social media for specific provisions (hot dog buns, potato chips, water bottles, lunch boxes), coordinate donations, make the food, pack it up, and deliver hot meals to first responders, recovery workers, and people who were still digging out of their homes. Many of the first responders had been eating dry packaged food instead of real meals. “The people who are working on houses, they’re not going to take a break,” Meadows says. “We know people are not going to stop to eat.”

The group quickly swelled swelled to almost 100 volunteers making 3,000 meals a day. Over the past five days, they’ve delivered 15,000 hot meals to workers and flood victims. And they’ve delivered 3,000 meals to nearby Wharton, Tex., which is still flooded.

“Once we got out, we knew it was time to work,” says Jenny Schneider, who works as a hairstylist and raises her family’s five kids. “Can’t sleep, can’t eat, it’s time to help.”

Joey Broussard, 42, who was leading the Katy cook team on Sunday, estimates they’ve made between 5,000 and 8,000 hamburgers—“if you’re a McDonalds or a Burger King, we’ve surpassed you,” he says—and 3,000 to 4,000 hot dogs, plus deer meat, elk meat, elk sausage and 1,000 sausage links. They’ve taken donations ranging from vegetable curry to brisket to pasta salad to gluten-free waffles. There were several days last week when the grocery stores in Katy were barren, and bread and eggs would sell out in 15 minutes. Many of the people bringing donations were taking food out of their own mouths.

The operation has the feel of a hyper-efficient family picnic. Volunteers filled to-go boxes by pushing them through a well-oiled assembly line: the men cooked and smoked the meat; the women cut it, assembled burgers and scooped potato salad and pasta; teenagers added granola bars and chips and drinks; 8-and-9-year olds handled fruit and cookies; and the youngest children added a peppermint to the box at the end. Anybody who wasn’t on the assembly line was helping to receive donations or load boxes into pickup trucks waiting to make deliveries.

Even residents whose own homes have suffered damage have come to volunteer. Bailey McFarland, a 21-year old nursing student, says her home is inundated in five inches of water.

The devastation has brought neighbors together. Christie Hensley, 40, drove with her teenage daughter Reese and baby daughter Riley to deliver meals to Taanya Bell, a math teacher at a Katy high school and a former neighbor. Bell lives in a two-story home, but her neighbors on either side live in one-story homes, so Bell invited them over to ride out the storm on her second floor. The other two families didn’t even know each other before, but after five adults, five kids, and several dogs spent days living together, they’re all fast friends.

“Everybody gets caught in the bubble of their own world,” Bell says. “ You forget to look out the window at who’s next door. Now, we just go into each other’s houses, borrowing things, helping each other. It’s been really nice.”

In the 10 minutes it takes for Bell to tell this story to Hensley and her girls, two other trucks come by to offer hot meals cooked by different volunteer groups. “It took a natural disaster for everybody in Katy to come together and help,” says 14-year old Reese. “Why can’t we do that naturally?”

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