Following Hurricane Harvey, grocery stores put emergency plans into high gear

Restocking key to reopening as rescue efforts recede

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DALLAS — Grocery stores have had to go to extreme lengths to reopen stores and restock shelves with milk, bread and other essentials in the areas hit hard by Hurricane Harvey.

One retailer, H-E-B, flew in truck drivers by helicopter. Kroger filled up company buses with employees who traveled from other cities and states to work in Houston and coastal areas.

And Wal-Mart tapped distribution centers as far away as North Carolina and New Mexico to bring in truckloads of bottled water and non-perishable food.

Officials from all three stores said they had been studying weather patterns and getting ready to respond before the hurricane made its first landfall.

Once the storm hit, they began to tackle on-the-ground challenges — bringing in enough inventory to restock bare shelves, helping truck drivers navigate roads with high water and finding employees in hard-hit areas to put items on shelves and check out customers.

Now major retailers are pushing to get stores back in operation as rescue efforts continue and floodwaters recede. Flooding, power outages and staff shortages had led to closures. And they’re striving to meet the needs of people who’ve lost their homes, power and belongings.

“Grocery stores, we are right up there with first responders,” Kroger spokeswoman Kristal Howard said.

Hurricane evacuees have come to stores looking for water and non-perishable food, but also for underwear and socks. That’s led to higher demand at Wal-Mart stores north of Houston, where people have stopped to shop while fleeing, company spokesman Ragan Dickens said.

“When you’ve lost everything, the fresh change of clothes becomes vitally important,” he said.

At its peak, Wal-Mart had a total of 134 stores and distribution centers closed, Dickens said. The closures peaked on Tuesday morning.

By early Thursday, only 21 facilities still were shuttered — 19 Wal-Mart stores, one Sam’s Club and one distribution center, he said. The closed stores are predominantly in Houston, Beaumont and Aransas Pass, where streets are flooded.

High demand for items — and difficult logistics of bringing in supply — has led to longer lines at some Wal-Mart stores. Some of the stores, which are relying on leaner staffs, are letting a limited number of people into the stores at a time to keep customers and employees safe, Dickens said.

The Wal-Mart spokesman said he expects high demand at Houston and coastal area stores over the coming weeks and months.

Customers needed flashlights, water and non-perishable food to prepare for the storm and respond to it. Soon, he said, they’ll need items such as paper towels, wipes and disinfectants for the next phase — cleanup. And eventually, he said, they will need clothes, pillows and replacements for all other belongings that are lost or destroyed.

Wal-Mart has seen a spike in demand in Temple, College Station and other cities north of Houston where evacuees have stopped as they’ve fled.

In the past six days, Wal-Mart has sent 1,060 eighteen-wheeler trucks to South Texas, Dickens said. Of those, 932 were full of bottled water.

San Antonio-based grocer H-E-B booked hotel rooms in the Houston area before the hurricane so that out-of-town employees could work at local grocery stores after the storm ended, said Mabrie Jackson, H-E-B Central Market spokeswoman in Dallas.

More than 100 employees from the San Antonio area are traveling to Houston and coastal area stores to work in stores.

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