Image: Shoppers
James Edward Bates  /  AP
Owner Curtis Dosch, right, helps Billy and Sharon McCoy purchase a chainsaw, tarps and a few other supplies at the Ace Hardware in Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
updated 8/31/2008 3:18:34 PM ET 2008-08-31T19:18:34

From the confines of an emergency command center at the company's North Carolina headquarters, dozens of Lowe's employees are spending the weekend monitoring the swirling collection of clouds and rain bearing down on the Gulf Coast.

There in Mooresville, N.C., and 40 miles away at a site in Wilkesboro, managers at the home improvement chain are making decisions about how the company's 75 stores lying in the projected path of Hurricane Gustav will get emergency shipments of everything from flashlights to shutter locks.

"I think we're all a little bit anxious about this storm, simply because of the path," said Lowe Cos. Inc. spokeswoman Karen Cobb.

As the Atlantic hurricane season roars on, retailers are redoubling efforts to make sure coastal residents have enough supplies and gear to weather whatever Mother Nature throws their way, staging truckloads of material for quick deployment and booking hotel rooms by the hundreds to make sure enough employees and managers from other states are in the area to quickly reopen stores after Gustav passes.

At The Home Depot Inc., supplies are being held at sites a day's drive from the shoreline, ready to refill shelves with generators, plywood and gas cans.

Meanwhile, workers at the Atlanta-based company's 24-hour command center get weather updates and study real-time sales data to make sure shoppers have enough material to board up windows and clean up from damaging wind and rain.

In the three years since Hurricane Katrina swamped Louisiana and Mississippi, the chain began preparing for weather disasters sooner while monitoring wider swaths of its territory.

Image: Ray Sanderson
Marianne Todd  /  Getty Images
Ray Sanderson of Laurel, Mississippi, fills two 55-gallon drums with gasoline at Sam's Club in Meridian, Mississippi this week. Sanderson said he drove an hour north to purchase the gasoline because of gouging and long lines in Laurel.
"We get ready earlier than we used to years ago," said John Tovar, the company's regional vice president of the Gulf Coast region. "We feel like it's easier to pull back than it is in the last hours to try to move forward."

Shoppers are also readying for storms earlier than ever before. Now, experts say, they begin crowding stores sometimes a week before a hurricane is forecast to make landfall. At the same time, customers who before believed their properties were too far from the coast to sustain damage are also stocking up.

In the Uptown section of New Orleans — a neighborhood dominated by the mansions of St. Charles Avenue and century-old wood frame houses — employees at Harry's Ace Hardware were awaiting fresh shipments of D batteries for flashlights and 2-gallon gasoline cans. A flurry of shoppers had already grabbed the store's supply of 5-gallon diesel cans to hold fuel for personal home generators.

"Everybody is paying attention this year," said employee Arthur Jones.

Neighborhood resident Karen Edmunds emerged Thursday with a small bag of items to ensure that her shutters stayed closed in the gusting winds. Her house already has a stash of batteries and a battery-operated radio and television and — for the absolutely worst scenario — an inflatable life raft and life jackets.

"I've been pretty well prepared," she said.

Since Katrina, Target Corp. learned to not only make sure supplies were headed to a disaster area, but also to "rally points" — areas where evacuees are likely to head.

At those stores, the Minneapolis-based retailer is working to make sure there's extra supplies of personal hygiene products, toiletries, clothing and nonperishable food.

"If you're evacuating, you're grabbing what you can," said Target spokeswoman Brie Heath. "We're making sure they can sustain after that."

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which has 100 stores that could be affected by Gustav, shipped 47 truckloads of bottled water to the area on Thursday.

"These storms have and do move around quite a bit," said Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter, who said the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer had staging centers located around the region.

After Hurricane Rita, Wal-Mart and the state of Texas decided to put a Wal-Mart representative in the state's emergency response office so officials can communicate directly with them about what is needed from the retailer.

"No one single agency can manage a disaster like that on its own and private and public partnerships can help," Rossiter said. "Lives can be saved and suffering can be reduced."

After losing stores during Hurricane Katrina, grocery chain Save-a-Lot said it has equipped its Gulf area shops with satellite phones in case phone service is lost. The discount grocer also has a generator at the ready to keep distribution centers running.

Gulf Coast drug stores are stocking up on the essentials as well as over-the-counter medications.

"We're already seeing increased activity, particular in our New Orleans stores," said CVS Caremark Corp. spokesman Mike DeAngelis. "People want to make sure they have their medication on them in the event they have to evacuate."

In the wake of Katrina, Baton Rouge-area CVS pharmacies kept doors open around the clock to handle extra business created by Katrina evacuees. DeAngelis said the Woonsocket, R.I. company might make similar moves if Gustav displaces large numbers.

Some retailers said they've also leaned to create systems to help track the location of evacuated employees, while others are establishing emergency funds to help workers who lose their homes.

The surge of shoppers hitting stores as Gustav lumbers toward the U.S. is also a boon for business, experts said.

Morningstar analyst Brady Lemos said there's no way to gauge how much the rush on generators, tarps and other material will affect stores, but said he expects a boost in sales and profits at the end of the quarter.

"I don't think any of them are rooting for a hurricane to hit their towns, but in the past, it has helped," he said.

Both Lowe's and Home Depot declined to discuss specifics about how weather disasters affect store performance.

"We are focused on being there when our customers need us, and that's the most important thing," Lowe's spokeswoman Cobb said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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