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Businesses Pulled Into Natural Disaster Preparations


When any part of the country prepares for a natural disaster like Hurricane Florence, local responders spring into action - Coast Guard, FEMA, Army, National Guard. And then there are the retail stores. Companies like Walmart, the Home Depot and Walgreens have become a major part of the unofficial emergency planning process. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Yesterday morning a scene unfolded in front of the Home Depot store in Wilmington, N.C.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I need everyone to be professional and respectful. I will call the police department if needed.

SELYUKH: Wilmington is under a mandatory evacuation order. The store was about to close, but people still came to buy water or batteries. Workers were trying to control the crowd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Again, if you're in by 10 a.m., that's great. I have not been home for four days, nor have I slept. We will try to get as many people through as possible. That is our whole intent.

SELYUKH: Jennifer and Scott Carpenter were among the shoppers who got shut out as the store closed. They stared at pallets of plywood sitting outside that they could see but no longer buy.

JENNIFER CARPENTER: I get it that your employees need to be safe. That's great, but we need the supplies. And...

SCOTT CARPENTER: Well, and if nothing else, FEMA can be here...

J. CARPENTER: Someone can be here.

S. CARPENTER: ...With some police officers to issue it out.

SELYUKH: This is the strange and tricky position of the country's major big-box stores. Places like Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe's, Dollar General - people turn to them for supplies in preparation for natural disasters and later for rebuilding and cleanup. Sure, these companies stand to make a lot of money from this shopping, but they're also staffed by the very same people facing the very same dangers. Here's Hector Padilla, the president of the Home Depot Southern Division.

HECTOR PADILLA: In most cases, our stores stay open as long as possible. They stretch the hours because they want to serve the community. But again, first and foremost is the safety of our associates and our customers.

SELYUKH: Padilla says at least a week ahead of the storm, Home Depot will update a list of workers who live nearby and who volunteer to work as long as possible before the storm and as soon as it's safe after it passes.

PADILLA: Our store managers have printed lists in case they lose communication during the storm.

SELYUKH: Typically these big-box stores close with a mandatory evacuation order, but the specific timing can change depending on the details, such as road conditions or upcoming curfews or the latest twist of the hurricane's path.

JENNIFER THAYER: When our employees start getting anxious and they start talking about their need for the family, it's our time to just make the decision and say, absolutely, let's close this door.

SELYUKH: Jennifer Thayer oversees the stores in the Carolinas for Lowe's. The company asks workers from nearby cities and states to volunteer and help reopen stores after the storm. I asked Thayer about these workers on Wednesday.

How many have volunteered so far?

THAYER: We've already got close to 200 employees that we will deploy as soon as we can safely get them in.

SELYUKH: Lowe's, the Home Depot and Walmart all told me that they have an emergency operations center, a space inside headquarters where dozens of people monitor forecasts, manage drug deliveries, talk to officials. It is in these companies' interest to limit how long they stay closed during natural disasters. Even Wall Street keeps an eye on the big-box store profits in the aftermath. People turn to these stores for water, generators, flashlights, gas cans, tarps. Lucas McDonald oversees emergency operations at Walmart, which also sells a lot of food.

LUCAS MCDONALD: Canned tuna is a big one. The canned chicken - so one of the things we encourage our customers to do is make sure they have a manual can opener. If you lose power, you're going to be able to open that up.

SELYUKH: And after the storm passes, the stores will next prepare to sell water pumps, hoses, Sheetrock, chainsaws, mops and bleach - all you need to rebuild and return to normal. Alina Selyukh, NPR News.