Thursday, September 22, 2005

'The Only Lifeline Was the Wal-Mart' (Fortune)

The world's biggest company flexed its massive distribution muscle to deliver vital supplies to victims of Katrina. Inside an operation that could teach FEMA a thing or two.

Monday, September 19, 2005
By Devin Leonard

Jessica Lewis couldn't believe her eyes. Her entire community—Waveland, Miss., a Gulf Coast resort town of 7,000—had been laid waste by the storm, and Lewis, co-manager of the local Wal-Mart, was assessing the damage to her store. The fortresslike big box on Highway 90 still stood. But Katrina's floodwaters had surged through the entrance, knocking over refrigerators full of frozen pizza, shelves of back-to-school items, racks of lingerie. Trudging through nearly two feet of water in the fading light, Lewis thought, How are we ever going to clean up this mess?

That quickly became the least of Lewis's worries. As the sun set on Waveland, a nightmarish scene unfolded on Highway 90. She saw neighbors wandering around with bloody feet because they had fled their homes with no shoes. Some wore only underwear. "It broke my heart to see them like this," Lewis recalls. "These were my kid's teachers. Some of them were my teachers. They were the parents of the kids on my kids' sports teams. They were my neighbors. They were my customers."

Lewis felt there was only one thing to do. She had her stepbrother clear a path through the mess in the store with a bulldozer. Then she salvaged everything she could and handed it out in the parking lot. She gave socks and underwear to shivering Waveland police officers who had climbed into trees to escape the rising water. She handed out shoes to her barefoot neighbors and diapers for their babies. She gave people bottled water to drink and sausages, stored high in the warehouse, that hadn't been touched by the flood. She even broke into the pharmacy and got insulin and drugs for AIDS patients. "This is the right thing to do," she recalls thinking. "I hope my bosses aren't going to have a problem with that."

Wal-Mart, America's biggest company, is many things to many people-discounter extraordinaire, union buster, guardian of small-town virtues, wrecker of small-town shops-but about one thing there is no question: It is the repository of the nation's stuff. And for the people whose lives were stripped bare by Katrina, it was mundane stuff that meant the difference between life and death. Lewis was one of thousands of Wal-Mart employees who delivered, and no, her bosses don't have a problem with what she did. ( more...)