A year that started with Americans providing relief to tsunami victims in Asia ended with an outpouring of help for U.S. citizens along the Gulf Coast, which was hit by Hurricanes Katrina in late August and Rita in mid-September.
Hardest hit by Katrina were New Orleans and coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama, where power was knocked out, homes were knocked down and much of the region's infrastructure was destroyed.
While some supermarkets lost their roofs or were filled with water, others were leveled to their foundations. Some also fell victim to an added destructive element - looting. "That store was looted and then torn up by a bunch of thugs," Donald Rouse, president of Rouse Enterprises, Thibodaux, La., told SN about one of his stores, adding that the looters had done more damage than the hurricane.
With access difficult in some areas and some stores still under water weeks after Katrina hit, it took many operators a while to fully assess the extent of damage, and as the year drew to an end several chains and independents were still unsure how many of their stores would reopen.
In addition, with 500,000 coastal residents seeking new homes, population centers shifted, with some supermarkets picking up business formerly done by stores that had been knocked out of commission and some operators reporting volume increases of 40% or 50% above the norm.
Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast three weeks after Katrina, and while that storm complicated cleanup efforts in the New Orleans area, it caused only minor disruptions in coastal Texas and Louisiana cities - though consumers who had seen the devastation of Katrina on TV trooped to their supermarkets in advance of the storm, causing sales to spike at record levels for some retailers.
In the wake of the storms, at least two operators - Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., and Brookshire Bros., Lufkin, Texas - improvised by opening "tent stores" - temporary locations to fill the needs of customers at stores that had been severely impacted.
Wal-Mart operated under canvas outside a shuttered store in Waveland, Miss., while Brookshire set up makeshift stores on the parking lots at seven out-of-commission locations, using refrigerated trucks and generators for perishables that enabled it to offer a wider range of grocery items than were available through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the American Red Cross.
By late November the biggest problem remaining for many operators hit by the hurricanes was staffing their stores. With many regular employees still dealing with housing issues and not returning to work while they tried to rebuild their homes and their lives, finding enough employees became a real challenge that prompted supermarket operators to offer unusual incentives to fill their work forces, including large bonuses, better starting salaries, increased payments for employee referrals and temporary housing in trailers for displaced workers.
Although business was picking up as the year ended, nothing was as it had been. "Normal has been redefined, and I don't know what that is anymore," Jay Campbell, president and chief executive officer of Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., told SN.