Retailers Weathering Hurricane Katrina

NEW YORK -- Supermarket chains and independent grocers along the Gulf Coast yesterday closed their doors and prepared as best they could face the worst, including unprecedented cleanup efforts, as Hurricane Katrina pummeled the region with rain and brutal winds. Meanwhile, stores in the Southeast were bracing for more of the same, as the massive storm spun its way toward them.

The much-feared hurricane, which by press time yesterday had dropped to a category 2 storm, plowed yesterday into coastal areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving extensive flooding and power outages in its wake.

Retailers scrambled to protect property and personnel. Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market issued a statement that three of its Louisiana locations, in New Orleans, Metairie, and Baton Rouge, would be closed until further notice. Employees were encouraged to call a toll-free help line to learn the status of their stores, and for general operational information.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores said it had closed more than 80 stores in the Gulf Coast states, but expected its Emergency Operations Center to continue working 24/7 with its Southeast distribution centers, ready to send truckloads of product to communities as stores re-open. Meanwhile the forward-thinking retailer had moved on to relief efforts, with a $1 million donation to The Salvation Army to provide early support for upcoming disaster relief assistance. Wal-Mart Stores, Neighborhood Markets, and Sam's Clubs nationwide are accepting customer donations for The Salvation Army this week.

With the majority of its stores in Florida, Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, Inc. had already encountered Katrina as a category 1 hurricane, but was preparing for its rebound on other Southeastern states.

"Our Atlanta division, which oversees stores in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and Tennessee, is bracing for the storm," Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous told Progressive Grocer. "We have teams already assembled. We know that the community depends on us being back open to help it return to normalcy."

Luckily for Publix, none of its Miami-area stores were damaged when Katrina first struck U.S. land last Thursday. "All our stores in Miami are open and operational. We did experience power outages, which varied from store to store, so we're in the process of replenishing perishables," Brous said. "Food safety is our number one priority."

Other retailers throughout Alabama, Tennessee, and other Southeastern states were preparing for heavy weather that was expected to hit today, although at press time it was unclear how severe the storm would be. "The storm is expected to be at tropical strength by midday [Tuesday], and forecasters expect it to go near Nashville," noted Food Lion spokesman Jeff Lowrance. "Our stores in Tennessee are well-stocked [and] we have the generators ready."
-- Jenny McTaggart, with staff reports
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