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Retailers Clean up After Hurricane; Citrus Crop May Be Devastated

LAKELAND, Fla. – Some sense of normalcy is slowly returning for Florida's food retailers and manufacturers as the state continues to clean up after Hurricane Charley. Retailers reported most of their stores were up and running. The state's citrus crop may have been decimated by the storm.

At the peak of the storm's attack, 115 of Winn-Dixie's Florida stores were closed. But, as of yesterday afternoon, only 10 units still had their doors shut, while 25 were operating without power.

"Some of our stores were hit real bad," Joanne Gage, v.p., advertising and marketing at Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores, told Progressive Grocer. "The 10 stores that are still closed are either in bad condition, or there is still such devastation in the area" that reopening them was not feasible.

Wal-Mart's three Sunshine State stores that were still closed on Monday afternoon were expected to be reopened shortly. "We were very fortunate," said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman at Wal-Mart Stores' corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. "We had some reports of damage or food loss, but for the most part we fared very well, and our associates did, too."

She noted that the chain's Wauchula store is the only building in town with electricity. "It's actually across the street from the electric company, and we're using their generator system and giving away other supplies out in the parking lot," Weber said.

Wal-Mart donated three vacant stores -- in Ft. Myers, Lakeland, and Haines City -- to FEMA to use as emergency housing shelters. "We sent down over 300 truckloads of bottled water and 100 truckloads of general merchandise, including propane, tape, lamps, lamp oil, batteries, generators, and flashlights," said Weber, adding that the retailer is also making donations to the American Red Cross.

"We've got donation trailers set up in different towns, and we'll be taking donations through Saturday, when those donations will be dispersed," said Weber.

Winn-Dixie also has been doing its part. "We’re bringing in lots of ice and water and giving that away as donations," Gage said. In addition, last Saturday the chain launched a program called Even-It-Up, in which customers can round off their bills to benefit storm victims through the American Red Cross' Disaster Relief Fund. The chainwide program and is benefiting Floridians hit by Tropical Storm Bonnie on Thursday and Hurricane Charley on Friday. The program's duration is open-ended.

"We haven't set an ending date yet," said Gage. "You can usually tell, and when the giving wanes, it's usually time to move on, but right now everyone's still giving. We're just so close to it down here that people want to help in any way they can."

As of Monday afternoon, the extent of damage to the state's citrus crop was still being assessed. The crop took a direct hit from Charley.

"There has been some damage to groves and packaging houses," Andrew Meadows, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Citrus here, told Progressive Grocer. He noted that the major producing counties of Hardee, DeSoto, and Polk were directly hit. "The 'baby fruit' is now forming, so some of the damage involves that fruit being knocked off," he said. Meadows noted that the harvesting season runs from October to June. "You can work with that," he said, "but there's been some uprooting, too. Obviously that's more severe and problematic."

"We have been trying to contact our growers [to assess damage], but without electricity and phones, that is real hard," said Sherry Berry, manager, community affairs at Tropicana Products in Bradenton. "We're lucky because our plant was spared any damage, but the Gatorade plant in Kissimmee lost power and had some minor damage."

Tropicana shut down its plant during the storm, and operations were set to resume Monday afternoon

--Richard Turcsik
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