CR’s Willie Fairley is heading to Kentucky to feed tornado victims

Willie Ray’s Q Shack’s mobile grill — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Another storm has ravaged the United States, and Cedar Rapids barbecue-master Willie Ray Fairley is on the move again.

An outbreak of tornados Friday left a path of devastation through parts of Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and especially Kentucky. At least 64 Kentucky residents have been confirmed dead, ranging in age from 5 months to 86 years old, and more than a hundred are still missing. Eight employees at a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, were killed when the tornado struck while they worked, and others are still lost in the wreckage.

“The people of Western Kentucky have gone through an unspeakable trauma,” Gov. Andy Beshear said through choked sobs at a Monday press conference. “The devastation is unlike anything I have seen in my life.”

President Joe Biden called Friday “one of the largest” natural disasters in U.S. history, and has dispatched 300 National Guard troops and FEMA to hard-hit areas. He said he plans to task the Environmental Protection Agency with investigating the role climate change may have played in causing the extremely rare late-fall storm.

The shock and helplessness felt by tornado survivors is something many Cedar Rapids-area residents experienced on Aug. 10, 2020, when hurricane-level winds tore through Iowa with only a few minutes’ warning. Hundreds of thousands were left without power, some for days and weeks; roughly 60 percent of Cedar Rapids’ trees were downed, and local hospitals saw hundreds of injured patients (four fatalies were linked to the derecho). Disaster response on the state and federal levels were slow. Issues of homelessness, school safety, racial inequality and struggling local businesses, already exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, grew more dire.

“No one has power, everybody’s cleaning, trying to do the best they could,” Fairley, owner of Willie Ray’s Q Shack, said of the derecho’s immediate aftermath. “I just got on my bike and started going around letting a few people know, ‘Hey, we got food if you need it.’”

Fairley launched his business in July 2019, using barbecue expertise he’d honed growing up in Mississippi. His titular shack is located at 288 Blairs Ferry Rd NE in Cedar Rapids (he added a second location in summer 2021), but he utilized a mobile grill to cook food and traverse Linn County neighborhoods post-derecho, offering hundreds of free meals to individuals forced to throw out whole refrigerators’ and freezers’ worth of food.

“I love doing this,” Fairley told Little Village. “You see some people come in with tears in their eyes and you put a smile on their face. I’ve just never been in a position to be able to do that for someone, and it’s just such a great feeling on the inside.”

Willie Fairley in front of Willie Ray’s Q Shack, 288 Blairs Ferry Rd NE, Cedar Rapids. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Word spread of Fairley’s philanthropy, and donations began pouring in to support him. Celebrities from Khloe Kardashian to Will Smith celebrated him on social media; Discover awarded Fairley $25,000, and Fortune listed him as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.”

In February, he drove his smoker to Texas to feed people affected by the snow storms and power outages; in September, he visited Louisiana to feed Hurricane Ida victims. So after Friday’s tornados, Q Shack fans on social media began asking Fairley if he was planning another trip. Unsurprisingly, he was.

“I must say YES we’re going to Kentucky,” he posted to Facebook Monday morning. “We are working on details at the moment. So if you would like to help you can VENMO to @willieraysqshack.”

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