Out of Control Policy Blog

Wal-Mart to the Rescue

One interesting, though underreported, aspect of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath is private sector disaster response. The WaPo highlights Wal-Mart's reaction:

    [Wal-Mart's] response to Katrina -- an unrivaled $20 million in cash donations, 1,500 truckloads of free merchandise, food for 100,000 meals and the promise of a job for every one of its displaced workers -- has turned the chain into an unexpected lifeline for much of the Southeast and earned it near-universal praise at a time when the company is struggling to burnish its image.

    While state and federal officials have come under harsh criticism for their handling of the storm's aftermath, Wal-Mart is being held up as a model for logistical efficiency and nimble disaster planning, which have allowed it to quickly deliver staples such as water, fuel and toilet paper to thousands of evacuees.

    In Brookhaven, Miss., for example, where Wal-Mart operates a vast distribution center, the company had 45 trucks full of goods loaded and ready for delivery before Katrina made landfall. To keep operating near capacity, Wal-Mart secured a special line at a nearby gas station to ensure that its employees could make it to work.

    . . . .

    [The] chain's huge scale is suddenly an advantage in providing disaster relief. The same sophisticated supply chain that has turned the company into a widely feared competitor is now viewed as exactly what the waterlogged Gulf Coast needs.

    The Bentonville, Ark., company is rushing to set up mini-Wal-Marts in storm-ravaged areas, handing out clothing, diapers, baby wipes, toothbrushes and food. With police escorts, it delivered two truckloads of ice and water into New Orleans. It is shipping 150 Internet-ready computers to shelters caring for evacuees.

    During a tearful interview on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Aaron F. Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish in the New Orleans suburbs, told host Tim Russert that if "the American government would have responded like Wal-Mart has responded, we wouldn't be in this crisis."

More from the San Diego Union-Tribune:

    Burt Flickinger III, managing director for Strategic Resource Group in New York, noted that Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott was groomed as a trucking manager and said Scott used his expertise to make sure the company was ready for the crisis.

    "Unlike local, state and the federal government, which didn't react until days after the hurricane hit, Wal-Mart was at work around the clock before Katrina even hit land to have the stores fully stocked with full pallet positions of water, flashlights, batteries, canned soup, canned meat," Flickinger said.

    "Wal-Mart served the city far better than any private or public institution," he said.

It's good to see some recognition for the oft-maligned Wal-Mart's response efforts. And it helps to demolish the myth that centralized disaster response is somehow inherently superior to decentralized, localized response efforts that muster private sector ingenuity and capabilities.

For a local perspective, be sure to check out BusinessWeek's profile of a Wal-Mart in Columbia, MS.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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