The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is cause for reflection. The disaster — both the natural and man-made ones — continues to impact the gulf coast. Charitable efforts continue — Walmart recently made a large monetary pledge — but the real charity may be opening stores in areas sill under-served by retail and in desperate need of goods and services.
As Hurricane Katrina approached the gulf coast, retailers were among the earliest making preparations and strategizing relief. Walmart arrived in the effected area before FEMA, and it wasn’t alone. Notably, Home Depot and Lowe’s arrived with building materials, generators, and other items critical to first survival, and later rebuilding. Electronics stores and auto supply outlets made equipment available and all worked tirelessly to ensure the safety of their employees.
But it was Walmart in particular, that got called out for the efficiency and speed with which supplies made it to effected areas. The retailer had established an emergency operations center at its Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters and used it to plan relief efforts.
Retailers during Katrina functioned far more efficiently than municipalities. They had stores and employees to protect and took precautions that preserved their investments. Then they went further.
Many companies empowered local employees to otherwise unusual things. CVS permitted a loss prevention coordinator to set up a mobile pharmacy to serve evacuees from New Orleans and filled roughly 20,000 prescriptions from a temporary site inside the Houston Astrodome, according to Loss Prevention Magazine.
There have been social media posts regarding these retail efforts as people note the 10 year anniversary of Katrina, all thankful and grateful to these companies for either treating them right as employees or for the much needed goods supplied.
In all, Walmart raised $20 million in cash, donated 1,500 truckloads of merchandise and enough food for 100,000 meals, the Wall Street Journalreported in 2005. It also promised a job to all of its displaced workers.
While Walmart wasn’t alone in these efforts, its size, advanced technologyand data centers allowed to respond faster and bigger than any other retailer. It’s also worth noting that Walmart was quick to respond to the World Trade Center disaster on 9/11. One reporter friend recently recalled the sight of Walmart trucks heading into New York City as the bridges and tunnels were clogged with those heading out. Walmart had no stores there at the time, it still doesn’t, but it sent supplies in to help relief workers.
Retail trade associations have been deeply involved in emergency response efforts. The Retail Industry Leaders Association and the National Retail Federation have members that sit on the Department of Homeland Security’s council. And it’s not just about disaster response, but company’s advanced data collection and analytics capabilities often put its predictive and planning capabilities ahead of the government’s.
For all these successes, there have been quite a few ways in which retail has failed in the aftermath of Katrina. Notably, many of these stores never re-opened in some of the most devastated areas. There are good business reasons for this of course, the lower population can’t support big box stores and operating at a loss as a customer service isn’t much of an option. Big businesses aren’t charities, but can be charitable.
Walmart last week pledged $25 million over five years to support organizations in disaster recovery and resiliency efforts worldwide. Part of this money is earmarked for grants to select local nonprofits in the U.S. Gulf Coast region.
Here’s a thought: What about pledging to open locations or aid small independent retailers in doing so?
New Orleans has recovered much in these 10 years, but it’s still very much work in progress. The poorest areas like the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward are still suffering and the lack of retail has hindered the rebuild and return of residents.
What if national retail chains opened some of the newly developed small format stores in these underpopulated areas? What if grants were made available to small businesses? Could a company the size of Walmart or Target let an independent operator tap into its purchasing power or distribution system, to get goods to markets too small to warrant a bigger box?
I don’t have the answer to these questions, but it’s hard to imagine that an organization big enough to achieve first responder status in a national emergency couldn’t figure out how to seed a different kind of recovery, the kind that brings people back, feeds, clothes and nurtures them with the goods and services that only retail can provide.