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“Be Prepared:” With Irma incoming in “Beast Mode” it’s Time to Learn from Harvey

The inside story of what it took to keep a Texas grocery chain running in the chaos of Hurricane Harvey

[Note: In any large scale disaster such as Harvey and now Irma the key to recovery is to keep the food supply chain open. If the people manning and managing the grocery chains falter it is about three days, maximum, until the guns come out.]

The largest grocer in the state is H-E-B, with about 350 stores scattered throughout Texas and Mexico. At a time when retail watchers question the future of brick-and-mortar stores due to Amazon’s continued ascendance, the 112-year-old retailer is drawing widespread praise after managing to open 60 of its 83 stores in Houston last Sunday, hours after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas as a Category 4 storm. (Now, 79 of the 83 stores are open.)

When employees couldn’t get to work, some stores still operated with as few as five people: one stationed at the door as crowd control and four working the registers, trying to get people out as quickly as possible.

On Saturday morning, I spoke with Scott McClelland, a 27-year H-E-B veteran who is president of the chain’s Houston division. For much of the week, he had worked from 5 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., with days blurring together.

The behind-the-scenes operation, as he told me, is a complicated dance involving multiple command centers, a helicopter, private planes, military style vehicles and frequent calls to suppliers, urging them to send toilet paper — and to skip the Funyuns.

McClelland, in his own words:

One thing about a hurricane is you never know exactly where it’s going to hit. They call them spaghetti models. They make their best guesstimate.

Historically, hurricanes hit one city. A hurricane is going to hit Houston. Or a hurricane is going to hit Corpus Christi. But because of the size of this one and the uncertainty of the route it was going to take, every area had to prep. That meant the drawdown on our distribution centers was huge. It really made it challenging for us.

We first knew the storm was coming last Tuesday. You begin to put plans into motion. We began shipping water and bread into the effected areas. Those are the two categories people buy first.

When you go into a hurricane, nobody buys frozen food. You want milk, bread, water. You want batteries, you want canned meat. You want tuna.

Coming out of a hurricane, if there’s been flooding, they’re going to want stick goods: mops and bleach. I’ll take all the bread I can possibly get right now. Then you’re going to start to get produce. The guy who runs floral at H-E-B calls everyday: Can I start to ship floral? We don’t care about floral. People do not buy flowers in the middle of a hurricane. You only have so many trucks and so much space.

RTWT and pass it on to Florida and environs @ The inside story of what it took to keep a Texas grocery chain running in the chaos of Hurricane Harvey

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  • Gordon September 6, 2017, 11:33 AM

    FEMA never will be able to respond with the speed and flexibility of private business. It’s not just HEB; Home Depot and Lowes have fleets of trucks loaded with what they know people will need. The trucks are kept just outside the area under risk, ready to roll in when the storm passes enough to get through. Waffle House has teams of managers ready to jump in and get their stores open and serving, because the local staff may be dealing with their own houses and families. And the local National Guard is a very key resource; they know the territory, and they’ve done it before. They can get the roads open and stare down looters. A lot of folks do not know that it was the Louisiana National Guard that ran the rescue operation after Katrina. They had a tent on the top floor of a parking structure. They crapped in the flooded stairwells. And they saved thousands of lives by coordinating the rescues. The media were gathered about 200 feet away, and none of them even visited the tent. They were too busy spreading false rumors and filming Sean Penn to notice the miracle across the street.

  • OldFert September 6, 2017, 1:11 PM

    Fort Stewart, Georgia’s 24th Infantry Division sent down quite a few folks to aid in Hurricane Andrew relief in ’92.
    Division staff people were looking for local maps and stuff, so they contacted the AAA Auto Club people in Savannah, GA. AAA immediately provided around 400 or so road maps to assist in the Division’s efforts.
    Also, we found out that the Census folks had large plotter-print maps available that not only gave road names and so forth, but even indicated occupied buildings and which buildings had how many old folks living in them that might need help. Quite a good data mining operation there, Census folks.

  • Subsunk September 6, 2017, 1:20 PM

    That’s my Grocery Store folks. Private companies do a helluva lot better job at building than the federal government does. HEB is only in Texas….

  • ghostsniper September 6, 2017, 2:46 PM

    We went through hurricane Charlie back in 2004 and food wasn’t on my agenda for the 9 days we did without power. Ice + water. That was my only concern.

    Our house was only 2 years old and it was designed and built by me (yes with my own hands – and about 100 other peoples hands) and sustained zero damage even though the eye passed within just a couple miles. But our 6′ high estate fence and most of the pool enclosure were completely gone as they are designed to be torn loose in small sections that FEMA describes as being non-threatening to adjacents structures, of which there were none.

    All freezer food was grilled in 24 hours then stored in coolers that were rapidly loosing their benefit in the 100 degree, 90% humidity. After 3 days our water was getting low and there was no ice anywhere. I jigger rigged a cord to charge up our well equipment (220v) off my generator (110v), which I did every 12 hours. But it was ice I craved and there was no way to get any. There was an icemaker in the fridge but I wasn’t going to run the generator for hours to make that paltry amount of ice, fuel was also at a premium.

    A month later another hurricane came through and we were better prepared cause I learned my lesson. Because we had advanced notice I stockpiled 80 gallons of drinking water from our well into new 5 gallon containers. Both the kitchen fridge and garage fridge (both side by sides with icemakers) were slammmed with bagged ice we had made.

    Hurricane Charlie was the first hurricane to make landfall in our area in the 40 years I had lived there so it sort of caught us off guard. After all the numerous false alarms over the decades by the media had tempered us and we believed Charlie would pass us by. But in the last 2 hours it did a 180 in the gulf and came straight toward us never veering again.

    It came NE from the gulf up Pine Island Sound and stormed across the land mass of Bokeelia Island then diagonally up Charlotte Harbor toward Punta Gorda, passing only a few miles NW of our home in the NW Cape Coral. Many roofs and large sections of walls were detached and deposited into Pine Island Sound. I criss crossed that Sound almost daily as most of my work then and still was the design of large scale custom homes on the islands of Useppa, Cayo Costa, Captiva, and Sanibel. Once, while crossing the sound in a 32′ Donzi w/ (2) 454 chevy V-8’s at about 50 mph the boat hit a submerged roof breaking one of the lower units completely off and bringing the boat to a dead stop. I was standing and wrenched both shoulders out of the sockets – very painful. The driver slammed his face into the dash knocking out all his front teeth and another guy did a 50 mph somersault off the front of the boat and skidded 100 feet across a shell shoal and was bleeding from square yards of shaved flesh. We got back to the dock on a trolling motor as the computer wouldn’t let 1 engine fire up.

    Charlie caused the largest single residential claim in State Farm Insurance’s history in Florida. I did the restoration work on the home. It was on Upper Captiva and faced directly on the gulf, less than 200 unprotected feet from the home to the waterline. A massive custom 3 story on top of driven wooden pilings.

    A 16′ wide sliding glass door on the 3rd floor failed and acted like an air scoop to Charlies 300mph core velocities. Inside, the air pressure equalized and then over inflated the entire structure – it literally exploded, from the top down. The structural framework for the 3rd floor collapsed into the 2nd floor. Amazingly enough a large structural corner beam configuration that supported the 3rd floor dropped and landed on a corian countered kitchen island that took and sustained the full weight. Kitchen island intact, the weight and wind force caused the 2nd floor to collapse into the 1st floor. All of this happened in mere seconds. The weight of 3 collapsed floors then caused 47 of the 48 10″x10″ pressure treated wood pilings to snap clean off. Only 1 was left undamaged. The snapped pilings caused the whole thing to collapse onto the ground like a giant pile of kindling wood in pastel Florida colors.

    It was my job to wade into that trap and find out why the structure failed and that is how you now know the story you just read. As I said, at 3.5 million dollars, a total loss, it was the largest single residential claim in State Farms 100+ year history in Florida.

    The owners were not present when the disaster occurred, having previously left to another island they also had a residence on (very wealthy, very nice – unlike all the lies you hear about wealthy people uttered through curled envious lips by the american communists). They decided they had loved the home and wanted it rebuilt just like it previosuly was. So now my job was to reconstitute the home but in such a way that it would now be capable of sustaining 300mph continuous wind velocity. It took a year to clear the property of the debris (there are no bridges to Upper Captiva so all things must be barged back and forth) and reconstruct the home as I described it. The only remaining original aspect being the 1 wooden piling that was not damaged. That piling was not incorporated into the structure as I questioned it’s structural validity, but a local guy chainsaw art effected it and turned it into a multiple ring toss game for drunkards. LOL You know, the 3″ rusty steel ring on a long fiberglass masonry twine and you try to swing it to hook onto a small wooden peg. I think it had about 5 of them on that carved totem. I just went and looked at the place on google earth and it is alive and well and we still get a christmas card from the owners each year.

    Irma’s on it’s way to that area right now and I expect to get another christmas card from those wonderful people this year.

    “Good design isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.”
    –gs, 2099

    “Distinction thru Design”
    –gs, 1986

  • Terry September 6, 2017, 3:29 PM

    @ghost, can you build fire proof houses? We need them right now in the west. The Fed.gov is burning everything they can.

  • ghostsniper September 6, 2017, 5:30 PM

    Provide enough money and anything can be built.
    Unbelievably, most people prefer chinese trinketry over things that enhance their lives.
    What do you mean, that the gov’t is burning everything?

  • Gordon September 6, 2017, 5:38 PM

    I believe you, Ghostsniper. The wind speed up on that third floor level is likely 20 percent higher than the wind measured at the surface. This is because the ground, buildings, trees, and even the surface of the water exert drag on the wind speed.

  • Julie September 7, 2017, 7:11 AM

    My home is right in the strike zone for this one. My family is safe, but I know a lot of people – lifetime hurricane veterans who don’t jump at every overhyped storm – saying they wanted to evacuate, but either couldn’t or couldn’t go before Friday, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. Any of your readers who pray, please pray for us. Especially those who can’t get out.

  • ghostsniper September 7, 2017, 1:18 PM

    Spoke to my son this morning who is in Cape Coral, FL and he said the media is pumping this one big time, has the whole state worked into a lather. Riding on the wake of Harvey, this is an opportunity the media couldn’t resist.

    All the gas stations are empty and the shelves in all the stores are bare.
    If you haven’t left, or stocked up by now, your goose is cooked….according to the media.

    If your house was designed and/or built by competent designer/builders in the past 20 years and your finished floor level is at least 10 feet above mean sea level you will most likely be OK, if you have adequate provisions and a good attitude.

    If you are delinquent in any of those areas you will possibly soon get what you deserve for your willful negligence.

  • Eskyman September 7, 2017, 2:52 PM

    My nephew is in Kissimmee, FL. His mother is in N. Texas, and offered to pay for his plane trip to visit her, but he refused.

    He’s 24 and immortal, so he’s actually looking forward to spittin’ in the eye of that hurricane; I’m just praying that he lives through it, if it’s anything near as bad as it might be. The photos I’ve seen of the islands where Irma has passed are scary as hell; they’re just wiped out. Total devastation.

    Personally I wouldn’t want to be in FL when the power’s out, as the bugs and the heat + humidity are insufferable. If this hurricane is half as bad as expected, power could be out for a long time.

    Prayers for all those affected. I’m lucky: here in CA, all I have to worry about are earthquakes, idiot politicians, tsunamis and murderous illegal aliens. Probably the most dangerous things on that list are the politicians!