As Hurricane Katrina formed from nothing in the Atlantic last August, a small crew began tracking it. As it gathered strength and barrelled toward the Gulf Coast, they sent warning all up and down the coast: Board up your windows and block your doors. They pre-positioned critical supplies of food, water, generators, even diapers, in staging areas, ready for the hurricane to strike. These are the men and women of Wal-Mart.
Read the full story from National Journal on how Wal-Mart’s storm trackers kept the company ahead of the storm, and how Wal-Mart employees on the ground delivered relief in the critical first days when the government — federal, state and local — could not.
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America’s giant corporations have their own emergency-management systems, separate from and parallel to the government’s. They cannot afford not to: These businesses have billions in assets — facilities, goods, and personnel — to protect. And if those private assets survive intact, they can help fill a tremendous public need during disaster-recovery efforts, if the private and public sectors can bridge their differences and work together. . . .
No company demonstrates more clearly how much can be done — and how much is still to be done — than Wal-Mart. With its facilities concentrated in the storm-prone Southeastern states, the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer had hurricane plans in place long before Katrina. Checklists prompt store managers to pack their refrigerators with dry ice if the power goes out, to barricade entrances against potential looters, and to shrink-wrap air-conditioning vents to keep floodwaters out.
Data from past storms instruct supply-chain staff to pre-position caches of “what we call ‘disaster merchandise,’ like blankets, ready-to-eat foods, 5-gallon gas cans, and generators,” said Kenneth Senser, a former CIA spy catcher who is now Wal-Mart’s vice president for global security. Strawberry Pop-Tarts are a particular favorite.
In the first three weeks after Katrina, Wal-Mart sent almost 2,500 truckloads of supplies to the stricken states, most of it for sale to individuals or relief agencies; 100 of those loads were outright donations.
Doing good on this scale requires good organization. “One tractor-trailer holds 24 pallets of water,” Senser said. That’s 4,032 cases, totaling more than 12,000 gallons: “You have to have something on the other end to manage the process of offloading; it’s not just ‘drop ’em off.'”
It also tells the tale of one Wal-Mart security manager, Trent Ward from the Kenner, La., Wal-Mart Supercenter, who was instrumental in helping relief supplies get in, rescuing stranded people, and more.
That first day, Ward got two pallets of bottled water, more than a thousand gallons, to the nursing home. Next, he delivered a pallet of ice to a hospital. Officers and firefighters soaked in sludge came by the store for clean socks and underwear. Mothers came for diapers.
And 1,600 people who were stuck in shelters needed food: “We would sit up until 2:30 in the morning making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Ward recalled. Unlike some of his colleagues at other Wal-Marts, Ward even removed the guns from his store before they could be looted, organizing a National Guard escort to take the weapons to the Kenner City Hall.
In the first critical days, more than 90 percent of the city’s supplies were coming from Ward’s Wal-Mart, said Kenner Fire Chief Michael Zito: “If we had waited on the state or federal government, we would’ve starved to death, no joking.”
The article continues, discussing several business groups such as Business Executives for National Security, which was formed in 1982 by entrepreneur Stanley Weiss, who said that companies needed to be involved in national security because “being dead is bad for business.”
The nonprofit BENS spent its first decades working the Washington policy debates over military base closures, Pentagon management practices, and arms proliferation. Then 9/11 shocked the good-government group into a bold experiment in practical action. Beginning with the improbably named “New Jersey Business Force” in February 2003, BENS chapters began connecting with state and local governments to mobilize their member companies as a kind of emergency militia in case of catastrophe.
Last July, the “Georgia Business Force” turned out 1,200 volunteers for a field exercise — a simulated anthrax attack — with public health officials. The federal government maintains a Strategic National Stockpile of pharmaceuticals bundled into “push packs” for overnight delivery in just such a crisis.
But, homeland security analyst Larsen said, “I’ve been told by people who left the White House not long ago that there’s not a city in the country that’s ready to distribute a push pack in the required time.”
Ern Blackwelder, who directs the nationwide Business Force program for BENS, said, “Metropolitan Atlanta has about 5 million residents — if we needed to vaccinate all of them in four days, it would take around 50,000 people to manage that mass vaccination.” But Atlanta has only about 2,000 public health workers. The numbers don’t add up.
So in the July exercise, teams of hastily trained volunteers from local businesses helped to staff the dispensing sites, reducing by half the number of public health workers required. Ultimately, BENS hopes to have just a handful of government officials at each site, overseeing an army of volunteers.
Like Wal-Mart’s work with Louisiana sheriffs, the Georgia Business Force is an exercise in enlightened self-interest. Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin set up one of the mock mass-vaccination sites in its cavernous aircraft factory and provided volunteers to help public health officials run it.
Initiatives like Wal-Mart’s internal disaster planning, BENS, and others, show that business can be much better and more efficient at disaster response and helping people in need than government can be, and we as a nation should rethink whether we want government involved at all. If we do, then perhaps FEMA should start taking some lessons from Wal-Mart on how to respond to a disaster. Either way, at the very least, consider patronizing businesses which are prepared to lend a hand in a disaster, such as Wal-Mart. This is called “voting with your dollars.”