By Robin Mather
As Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast on Friday, August 25, an employee of the Vintage Park H-E-B store in northwest Houston looked out the rear of the store and saw a funnel cloud. Inside the store, the other employees scurried for cover in the still-open store. No one was injured, but the store stayed open after the tornado danger had passed.
And when Hurricane Irma struck Florida’s southwestern coast, Publix’s emergency response team watched closely. They’d been eyeing this storm, as they do every storm, trying to maintain the delicate balance of store associates’ need to prepare their own homes and their families against their customers’ need to stock up and get home safely.
Supermarkets, as it turns out, may be the unsung heroes of natural disaster. Two chains in particular – H-E-B and Publix – stay open as long as possible before a hurricane hits, so their customers can stock up on much-needed supplies, especially if they’re going to shelter in place. And they reopen – if they closed at all – the very minute it’s possible to do so, because they know their customers will need to restock the milk, the ice, the bottle water, the baby formula after the worst of the emergency has passed and recovery begins.
“In a way, we’re first responders,” says Maria Brous, a Publix spokesman who’s based in Lakeland, Florida. “We see it as part of our mission to help our communities in so many ways. For people to have a smile and a warm cup of coffee … to use the phone charging stations we had set up … just all that stuff that we don’t think about in that kind of situation.”
In Houston, H-E-B Steps Up
Kimberly Weiberg lives near that Vintage Park H-E-B, and shops there regularly. She’s lived in Houston for going on 16 years, and says the store “always has a good produce selection, friendly people, and wonderful sampling, especially on the weekend. They have a nice organic section, and you can grind your own peanut butter there.”
While Weiberg purchases some items at stores closer to her home in Norchester, a Houston suburb, she goes to H-E-B for one thing in particular: “H-E-B is where I purchase meats because I feel more comfortable about the quality, and they do have good prices on meat.”
Weiberg and her family left town the day before Harvey hit, headed first to Dallas and then back to family in Missouri. “I stocked up before we left, though, so when we returned, I was able to help neighbors through the outreach program of my church, which is called Mercy Ministry.”
It was while assembling packages of emergency aid after the storm had passed that Weiberg’s friendly feelings toward H-E-B skyrocketed.
“We’re putting together these packages for Mercy Ministry, and up comes a tractor-trailer full of paper products – mostly toilet paper – and somebody said, ‘That’s from H-E-B.’ And then I learned about H-E-B’s $5 million donation to J.J. Watt’s (tight end for the Houston Texans) hurricane relief fund. It’s so cool to see people doing that.”
H-E-B’s concern for its community continues, she says. “I’ve seen posters about H-E-B giving free tetanus shots,” she reports. “But in terms of charity, everyone is not wanting to take because they think someone else needs it worse.”
Kelly Akey, also of Norchester, sheltered in place during the storm, and shopped at the H-E-B the night before Harvey made landfall. “I didn’t go to that H-E-B for a little while after the storm because the parking lot was flooded, as were the streets from my house to H-E-B, so I’m not really sure when they re-opened,” she says. The employee who spotted the tornado told her about it on her next visit to the store after the storm.
In Florida, Publix Hopes to Help
Publix’s spokesman Brous says the company was eager to send aid to hard-hit Houston after Harvey. “We sent five trailers of water,” she says, “and H-E-B was so gracious that, just a few days after that, they sent 10 trailers to us – seven trailers of water, two of ice, and one of assorted food, cleaning supplies and baby needs.”
The company and its customers have always been generous, she says. “Right after Harvey hit Texas, we opened a register campaign where customers could make a donation to the Red Cross for Texans. In less than five days, we raised $2.5 million for hurricane relief, and Publix Super Market Charities, our non-profit, also donated an additional $250,000 to that effort.”
Another register campaign was begun right after Hurricane Irma, Brous says, and that one is still on-going. “But Publix Charities has donated $1 million to the Red Cross and the United Way to help the recovery process.”
Publix, which is headquartered in Florida, has a lot of experience with hurricanes, Brous says. “Back in 2004, we had four hurricanes: Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne. After that, we invested in generators for our stores and now, more than 700 stores have them.”
Harvey’s effect on Houston may have encouraged Publix customers to prepare for Irma, Brous says. “We saw our customers preparing earlier, getting to the store and stocking up before the storm.”
In Irma’s aftermath, she says, “we had some water damage for some stores, but no significant issues. We did have more than 400 stores on auxiliary power. All of our stores have reopened, and now we’re helping our neighbors in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.”
But hurricane season has been tough on all grocery stores, she says. “We have an amazing warehouse and logistics team. Those teams literally worked around the clock to get bottled water, batteries, bread, diapers and formula to our stores, and those items are all still in high demand.”
At the heart of Publix’s generosity is the company’s “deeply personal relationship with our customers and our communities,” Brous says. “It’s all about the people and the bonds we make with our customers. The one thing that can’t be replicated is our people and their desire to serve.”