All eyes are on the Eastern Seaboard this week as Hurricane Florence is set to pummel the eastern U.S., with experts expecting it to make landfall in the Carolinas by Thursday or Friday.
Residents in the path of the hurricane will, at minimum, face inconveniences due to heavy rains, possible power outages and road closures. In a worst-case scenario, the hurricane could wreak havoc comparable to Hurricane Harvey, which tore through Houston a year ago.
Grocery stores are a central part of a community, especially amid natural disasters. Grocers supply much-needed goods ahead of extreme weather conditions, and in their wake, functional grocery stores are essential to recovery efforts as communities seek a return to normalcy. They often also play a key role in delivering food and water to emergency responders and evacuees.
"One of the things that we have to deal with as emergency managers is meeting all the needs of survivors," said David Merrick, director of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program at Florida State University. "At the top of that list is always going to be water, shelter and food."
Food Lion has been preparing to implement its hurricane preparedness plans in anticipation of Hurricane Florence for a few days now. Benny Smith, manager of media and community relations for Food Lion, told Food Dive in an email that the company is providing additional shipments of water, batteries and other items to its stores in potentially affected areas to ensure product availability and minimize any impact from the hurricane.
"We continue to carefully monitor the storm and are ensuring our shelves are stocked with essential items customers may need during this time, including working closely with our vendor partners to ensure products are available and restocked," Smith said.
According to Smith, when customers stock up ahead of a hurricane, essential items usually include bread, ice, canned meat, water, charcoal and batteries.
Other retailers are taking similar steps. Target, which operates 130 stores in the path of Hurricane Florence, said it has identified its 1,500 most in-demand items during the storm period and shipped extra provisions.
"This week alone, we've shipped more than 1 million bottles of water, along with food, flashlights, batteries, phone chargers, cleaning supplies and more," the retailer noted in a statement. "As guests stock up, we know some of these items are selling out, but we’re working around the clock to restock them as long as we safely can."
Industry efforts give grocers a boost
Earlier this week, the Food Marketing Institute sent out crisis guidelines to its members, which include independent grocers, national grocery chains and wholesalers. Doug Baker, vice president of industry relations for FMI, said most of its members began preparing the moment they got notification of a hurricane, but during times like this, companies appreciate additional guidance to ensure nothing is forgotten.
Retailers have a long list of considerations ahead of a natural disaster. According to Baker, stores need to identify a crisis management leader and consider how to pay employees through the crisis. Some larger chains may need to bring employees in from another area to help get their stores up and running again once recovery begins. It is also important for grocers to work with their state to determine what type of emergency declaration is in place.
"There is a litany of things they need to be going through right now," Baker said.
"One of the things that we have to deal with as emergency managers is meeting all the needs of survivors. At the top of that list is always going to be water, shelter and food."
Director of the Emergency Management and Homeland Security Program, Florida State University
Greg Ferrara, executive vice president for the National Grocers Association, said that having a proper plan in place makes preparing for a storm, and recovering after a storm, much more efficient and orderly for grocers.
"Grocers should coordinate with their emergency planners well in advance of any emergency to ensure they are able to safely re-enter a disaster area as soon as possible," Ferrara told Food Dive in an email. "Following a natural disaster, grocers will need to conduct damage assessments, check in with employees and develop plans to get employees back to work to reopen stores, and coordinate with key vendors to restock shelves and safely dispose of any damaged or spoiled food."
It is also imperative that grocers coordinate with emergency responders in areas that have sustained damage or may be under curfew, Ferrara said.
Industry organizations are a key resource for grocers during disaster response and recovery. FMI and NGA both work closely with FEMA, which allows them to pass along valuable information to their members and ensure FEMA knows what they need.
Baker said collaboration between the public and private sector helps citizens get back to their routines as quickly as possible and gets commerce moving again.
"We try to help FEMA get a better idea of where retailers and distribution centers are at, and then we try to open those lines of communication so that once a hurricane happens, there's communication between organizations and FEMA, which can then help us with infrastructure where it's needed," Baker said.
At the heart of community recovery
In many cases, once the storm calms, grocers are at the heart of recovery.
"As we have seen in virtually every natural disaster, independent grocers will be at the forefront of supporting their communities before, during and after an event," Ferrara said. He adds that many do it without fanfare, not for the public relations, but to support their neighbors and hometowns.
Last year, for example, H-E-B played a huge role in the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort — not just in opening stores, but in joining frontline efforts by providing mobile kitchens and other relief to affected areas.
H-E-B has a dedicated emergency preparedness department, and the company’s response to Hurricane Harvey is seen by many in the industry as an example of how grocers can respond to help their communities.
"As we have seen in virtually every natural disaster, independent grocers will be at the forefront of supporting their communities before, during and after an event."
Executive vice president, National Grocers Association
"When you talk about a disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, we do everything we can to not only recover our stores but also recover our communities because that's where we’re from as well," Justen Noakes, director of emergency preparedness for H-E-B, told Texas Monthly. "It's not only a matter of bringing our stores up as quickly as possible, but the sooner that we can provide relief and the comfort and the items that people need to return themselves to normalcy, the better off the whole community is."
In Florida, Publix has demonstrated how proper preparedness can speed up recovery. Merrick says that as Publix remodeled or built new stores in recent years, the company has equipped each store with a natural gas-powered generator.
When Hurricane Hermine hit Tallahassee two years ago, most residents and businesses were stuck without power for nearly a week. But Publix was open the morning after the hurricane struck due to the generators at each store. These generators made it possible for Publix to operate as normal, with everything from air conditioning to a fully functional frozen foods section.
"If people just wanted a Publix sub sandwich, they could go get it," Merrick said. "I know they earned a lot of goodwill from the community for that."
Merrick adds that there was little need for emergency responders to distribute food or water in the community, because most people could go to the store and get the supplies they needed at Publix.
"Simple preparedness measures on the part of grocery chains enable them to keep their business operating, including employees getting paid, but they also build huge goodwill with the community," Merrick said.