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Katrina Devastated, But Courage and Compassion Survived

By Emily Schmid
August 24, 2015
Volunteers hand out supplies at the Super Dome after Hurricane Katrina

The line at the Slidell, Louisiana, Sam’s Club gas station stretched as far as Mike Turner’s eyes could see. As he walked around the corner of the cashier’s post, a state trooper’s patrol vehicle emerged from the dusty procession.

Demand for fuel  – on top of food, water and other necessities – was high in those days after Hurricane Katrina, and any time Mike, then a regional general manager at Sam’s Club, and his colleagues saw a public official, they made a point to ask how they could help.

“In his car, he had water, diapers, formula, socks. I stopped and talked to him,” Mike recalled. “‘Hey, you’ve been working hard,’ I said. He replied, ‘You’re about to see a state trooper cry.’"

The officer had been on duty for two days straight, he said, and he’d just gotten approved for a two-hour break from his post. He’d headed to Sam’s Club for essentials to take to his wife and infant child, who didn’t evacuate before the storm because his job required him to stay in the area. With electricity out and hurricane damage all around, the officer said he was grateful for any glimpse of normalcy.

Mike was just doing his job that day, working a six-week stint overseeing Sam’s Clubs in Katrina-affected areas of the Gulf. While he and his colleagues did many things they’d never had to before – sleeping on Sam’s Club floors and figuring out how to serve customers without cash registers, refrigeration and lighting –  10 years later, it’s moments like those with the trooper that stick in his mind.

He also remembers the time as one where he and many other associates had to make quick but important decisions based more on gut and conscience than normal policy and procedures.

“We created a sense of calm for members and associates. … We didn’t open up every club the day after the storm, but when we did get them open, we opened for everyone. There was no membership fee. We just did whatever we had to do, whether it was FEMA needing a pallet of water or a church with 700 people.”

‘I Hope I Don’t Get Fired’

Once a police officer and firefighter, in 2005, Jason Jackson put those skills to work as director of emergency management at Walmart, where he led the company’s Emergency Operations Center: a hub at the corporate office where leadership coordinates efforts to help affected associates; restore store, club and DC operations; and support communities.

While Jason’s role put him formally in charge of Walmart’s response to one of the country’s biggest disasters, he insists that the real heroes during Katrina were the thousands of associates who acted with courage and compassion. Some of those stories are lesser known – such as a cashier contributing a few dollars to the baskets of families who needed it, or Walmart emergency responders giving their own food away to families who were hungry – and others, such as truck drivers who drove through difficult conditions and waited for hours on the highway to bring relief supplies into devastated communities, are ingrained in company culture.

“Our associates were empowered to help,” he said, but recalled one former co-manager in Waveland, Mississippi specifically who became a “poster child” because of her inspiring actions. After riding out the storm with her family at home, she traveled to her store that was heavily damaged. Upon seeing so many people in the community in need, she drove a front end loader through the building to seek out salvageable merchandise and later gave away what she could, such as food, water, shoes and clothes.

About a day and a half after Katrina’s landfall, Dale Snowden, director of disaster response and recovery, arrived in Waveland to assess the damage. He had a satellite phone, and called the Emergency Operations Center to report back.

“’Hey, the co-manager is here, she wants to talk to you,’” Jason recalls Dale saying. “She was happy and crying at the same time. ‘I hope I don’t get fired’ were the first words out of her mouth. After reassuring her, she was quick to let us know what her community needed. In fact, it became the location for our first tent store.”

Dale, who worked as a builder and insurance adjustor earlier in his career, worked on the ground in the Gulf for an entire month that year coordinating repairs and reporting back on the status of Walmart locations. Since then he’s done the same during the aftermath of many other natural and mand-made disasters, from fires and tornados in the U.S. to an earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

While philanthropy is a big part of Walmart’s response to any disaster, he said, he believes getting local stores back up and running is equally important, and not just for the obvious – restoring access to the things that people need.

“It’s not just about donating water or ringing the registers,” Dale said, “it’s about returning to people a sense of normalcy and that things are going to be OK. People think, ‘Hey, that’s my Walmart.’ I didn’t set out to be a recovery expert, but it’s very rewarding being able to fulfill people’s needs and help them when they need it most.”

Rebuilding in Biloxi

Beth Harrell, a department manager at a Walmart supercenter in Biloxi, Mississippi, remembers a similar response from the community when her store opened three weeks after Katrina.

“We constantly heard, ‘We’re so glad to see you all are still here!’” she recalled.

Beth, too, was glad to return to work after her family made it through the storm safely. When the storm was at its strongest, she’d evacuated to McComb, Mississippi, with her oldest son and his girlfriend, while her husband stayed home to guard the house. Even in McComb, about 130 miles northwest of Biloxi, Beth lost power and heard trees snapping, leaving her thinking the worst for her husband, who was at their house a block from the beach.

Phone service was out, too, so she didn’t hear from him for more than a week. When she finally did, he had quite the harrowing story.

“He saw it coming up under the door and thought to go get towels, but when he stepped away, the force of the water bent the door up like it was rubber. The water rushed in, and everything floated out.”

The couple had two dogs, a Labrador and a terrier. With the inside of the house now flooded with more than 4 feet of water, her husband swam out of the house with the smaller dog but had to go back and rescue the Lab.

Later, Beth and her husband would spend a year living in a FEMA trailer in their front yard, rebuilding their home in their spare time. While her husband passed away a few years ago, she still works at the same Walmart store as a department manager in apparel, and can recall more than a few blessings that came out of such a horrific storm.

“Our community became stronger. Everybody just jumped in and started helping each other,” Beth said. “We didn’t just sit back and go, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ I got to know a lot of my neighbors a lot better. Thank God nobody I knew lost their lives.”

From Red Cross to Retail

Lee Siler didn’t work for Walmart in 2005, but as then-director of the Northwest Arkansas chapter of the American Red Cross, he’d built relationships with the Walmart emergency management team and worked in the Emergency Operations Center when Katrina hit. It was an arrangement that allowed the two entities to communicate faster and get relief to affected areas much more quickly, he said.

Among all the memories he has of that intense period, joining one particular meeting following the storm’s landfall is one that left an impression on him.

“There was a long table, and Lee Scott [former Walmart CEO] was there. They spent an hour and 15 minutes talking about how they were going to take care of their people, get checks to them, make sure they had jobs, how to get them safe and sound,” he said. “Not once during that whole time did they talk about stores being destroyed or impact to operations, until the very last 15 minutes. That told me right then and there that Walmart was serious when they say that our associates come first. In that meeting I saw that come to life. Senior leadership got out of the way and gave people the power to take care of what needed to be done.”

The next year, when Walmart called and offered him a job leading community grant programs and disaster relief and resiliency, he knew it was a good fit. Now, he provides guidance to store and facility managers on disaster response and works with nonprofit organizations through the Walmart Foundation to distribute grant money that helps continue community recovery efforts.

Disaster recovery became Lee’s career field indirectly after working at a small town chamber of commerce where he uncovered a passion for working with volunteers, which led him a later position with the Red Cross.

Lee said. “These people are doing it because they want to, not because they get paid for it. You get the right volunteer in the right spot, and they can move mountains.”

Lee has seen that happen time and time again, he said, especially at the Walmart Associate Support Call Center, which is manned by volunteers.

“This isn’t their job, and it’s open until 9 or 10 at night. They’re signing up to help associates who are having the worst day of their entire life. Their homes may be destroyed, yet the associates want to step up and help.”

Today, Lee gets to work with volunteers on a global scale at Walmart, where he works to use the lessons learned from Katrina to continually improve the company’s disaster response moving forward.

“The positive impact that we can have on our customers, associates and communities around the globe is what keeps me here,” he said. “Nowhere else would I have the opportunity to do what I do.”