retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Gulf Coast seems to have largely dodged a bullet over the weekend, as Hurricane Gustav did not devastate the region to the extent that some had predicted, avoiding a repetition of the events that accompanied Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

However, even as Gustav lost its power and was downgraded, news reports emerged about as many as three new hurricanes that could hit the US within a week.

Interestingly, the Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend that Walmart, which became an example of how to effectively deliver relief aid during Hurricane Katrina (as opposed to how the federal government did it), was in “full swing” as it prepared for the landfall of Hurricane Gustav on the Gulf Coast.

According to the story, “The retailer's global 911 department fielded calls late Thursday from Mississippi and Louisiana emergency workers looking for empty Wal-Mart facilities that could be used as shelters.

“Meantime, an employee from Wal-Mart's trucking division worked on plans to get stores up and running after a massive storm. He contacted government agencies in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the states in Gustav's path, for transportation credentials that would allow Wal-Mart trucks and emergency vehicles into the damage zones. Of particular importance are overweight trucking permits that will allow Wal-Mart to haul massive power generators to stores.

“By Friday morning, as Gustav was lingering off the coast of Jamaica, about 10 people were manning the Wal-Mart emergency center, handling merchandise deliveries and dispatching portable satellite-phone teams, fuel teams and restoration teams to areas they expect will be at the periphery of the storm.”

The lessons of Hurricane Katrina – when Walmart and other retailers were far better able to cope with the devastation than was the federal government - appear to have been well-learned. As the Journal notes, “In the aftermath, Wal-Mart's approach to emergency response was widely cited and studied by groups, including the U.S. Senate and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. One of the biggest lessons: better coordination is needed between private and public sectors.”

KC's View:
Whoever wins the election in November, one hopes that when they are trying to figure out how to make the nation’s emergency response mechanisms more effective, they turn to the private sector for advice and direction.