With Florida in the path of the season's first tropical storm, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. ramped up its emergency operations center Monday for the kind of disaster relief effort that won it praise for responding faster than the government in the wake of Hurricane Katrina last year.
Wal-Mart emergency management director Jason Jackson said last year's successes raised expectations from the private sector in times of disaster. Because of that, he said, the world's largest retailer would coordinate more closely with government agencies, the American Red Cross and even business rivals.
Wal-Mart has about 80 stores and one distribution center in the Florida Gulf Coast area under a hurricane warning, but there were no plans at midday Monday to close any of those, Jackson said.
Wal-Mart and other retailers have managers in Florida's state emergency operations center to speed communications. That is part of improved coordination for this year's hurricane season.
"The dynamics have shifted. In the past, the private sector wasn't really the one tapped or expected to respond like it did during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita," Jackson told a conference call with reporters.
"Going into this year, we realized that this would be more maybe of an expectation. So we wanted to help manage that expectation," he said.
To do that, Wal-Mart has spent recent months talking with federal, state and local government agencies and cooperating with retailers, including Home Depot and Target, on a state-by-state basis, preparing plans with state emergency managers and retail federations for who can provide what supplies after a storm.
Jackson said the issues included "how do we as retailers work together with a state to best leverage the merchandise that's available, sending supplies to locations that need them most?"
Wal-Mart won praise after Katrina for rushing in truckloads of supplies and reopening stores at least partially to provide food, water and supplies. It also led other corporate donors with $15 million in cash and $3 million in supplies to help victims.
Jackson said the retailer has once again stocked up on food, water and emergency supplies at 8 warehouses in the southeast U.S. designated as disaster relief centers.
The entire operation is coordinated from an emergency operations center at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.
Jackson said the center has about 12 people working on Tropical Storm Alberto now, but that number could go as high as 200 if Alberto becomes as catastrophic as Katrina was, which is not expected.