Sunday, August 21, 2016

Louisiana floods, but Wal-Mart, UPS keep trucks running

By Jennifer Larino of NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune.
"Wal-Mart trucks were among the first to deliver much needed supplies after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast in 2005. As many Katrina survivors still note, Wal-Mart trucks arrived well before the Federal Emergency Management Agency did.

Over the weekend, Wal-Mart was again among the large companies in Louisiana able to keep supply lines open and operations going despite catastrophe -- this time historic flooding that devastated whole communities and shut down major roadways.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Erica Jones said the corporation's emergency operations center in Bentonville, Ark., kicked into high gear late last week as forecast warnings of record rainfall started to roll in. Wal-Mart has about 30 locations in the affected area, including stores in the heavily flooded communities of Denham Springs and Baker.

Jones said early planning included mapping alternate routes for trucks delivering to stores in and around Louisiana. Corporate meteorologists monitored the weather and helped inform plans. Preparations were made to ramp up shipments of essential supplies -- from bottled water to baby formula -- to the region as it became clear conditions would worsen.

Jones said eight Wal-Mart stores were closed because of various levels of flooding and damage. As of Thursday (Aug. 18), five of those stores had re-opened. A key distribution center in Hammond also remained open. The Hammond center serves stores in Louisiana and south Mississippi.
Jones said the current priority is ensuring Wal-Mart employees are healthy and taken care of and that trucks are safely re-routed to get to where they need to be.

"We are shifting our resources to be able to work around the road closures and damage to facilities," Jones said.

Big corporations have a clear motive in investing in disaster preparedness. Planning ahead minimizes the dent otherwise unpredictable natural disasters can make on revenues. And there's a sales advantage in being able to quickly get back to providing supplies and services to customers in a time of need. On the plus side, corporations can serve as a model for how disaster response should work. Experts point to Katrina. While FEMA's response was lethargic and inefficient, major companies ushered in needed supplies quickly.

Last December, FEMA gathered public and private sector officials in New Orleans for its fifth annual Building Resilience conference, during which leaders swapped ideas to improve response measures.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate called businesses large and small an "essential member of the team" when it comes to disaster response.

"The more resilient businesses are, the quicker they can recover and provide critical goods and services to help their communities rebuild," Fugate said in a release at the time.

UPS, the world's largest logistics company, has more than 2,860 employees at 19 facilities in Louisiana handling small package business.

UPS spokeswoman Susan Rosenberg said all UPS distribution centers were able to continue operations through the flooding, though there is now limited capacity at its facilities in four cities: Baton Rouge, Port Allen, Jeanerette and Gonzales.

Like Wal-Mart, Rosenberg said UPS started planning to re-route trucks and packages scheduled to pass through south Louisiana late last week. Five company meteorologists track weather patterns all over the world from a UPS hub in Louisville, Ky.

Distribution centers along the Gulf Coast have generators as a precaution for hurricane season. The company also has a phone hotline for employees in affected areas to call and check in.

Rosenberg said packages that are delayed or can't be delivered because of flooding are being marked as such in the company's electronic tracking system. Packages will be held at distribution centers until delivery resumes or for a few days until they are claimed, she said.

She noted UPS warehouses are typically slower this time of year, leaving enough room to store excess packages for the time being.

As floodwaters recede, large companies shift to meeting customer needs.

At UPS, the focus is getting delivery routes up and running as soon as possible and working with customers with high-priority deliveries -- for example, prescription drug orders, Rosenberg said. She added UPS is coordinating the transportation of trailers for the American Red Cross and for supply pickups at area shelters.

After years of tracking disaster recovery, Jones said Wal-Mart supply managers can anticipate what a region needs as it moves from flood to recovery. In coming days, shipments will shift from diapers and water to cleanup items, including shovels, gloves and bleach.

"Once it shifts from evacuation and immediate safety to more the recovery and cleanup, we know the supplies people are looking for," Jones said."

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