NEW ORLEANS - A year after hurricanes devastated the area, retailers are making sure they can power up and keep fresh foods safe in the event of a lengthy power outage.
When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck last year, supermarkets in and around the city, especially toward the south, lost thousands of dollars in perishable foods. Even with generators at the ready, some didn't have enough fuel on hand to keep them going long enough.
"In Katrina, we lost all our perishables," said Donald Rouse, co-owner of 16-unit independent Rouse Supermarkets, Thibodeaux, La. "Then Rita came so quickly and we lost them all again.
"We've bought powerful generators for our new stores. They're 1,000 kilowatts with 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel capacity. We also added four that we put on trailers so we can move them around. We even bought a used fuel truck."
Demand for generators has been strong.
"We've sold numerous generators this year to retailers along the Gulf Coast region," said Clayton Lester, vice president, corporate marketing/special services, at Associated Grocers of Baton Rouge, a wholesaler supplying more than 200 independents in the area.
One AG member, John Sunich, has added a 400-kilowatt generator at a newly built store, Oak Point Fresh Market, just outside of Baton Rouge. One of Sunich's stores survived the hurricanes unscathed, but one in Buras, south of New Orleans, was wiped out.
"I had a generator there, on a 6-foot stand and then up 4 more feet, but it was under water," he said. "We had 22 feet [of water] in total. I used to be able to walk two blocks from my store there to the shrimp docks. Now it's ground zero."
Like other AG-supplied retailers SN spoke with, Sunich and Rouse remain undaunted by last year's damage and their losses. Rouse, who reopened most stores soon after the hurricanes' arrivals, has built a new one and has a new store scheduled to open next month in Slidell, one of the surrounding towns that was hit hard last year.
In an area even more devastated - St. Bernard Parish - Barry Breaux, owner of Breaux Mart Supermarkets, Metaire, La., is opening a new 22,000-square-foot store this month.
"People there are resilient," Breaux said. "Out of 65,000 people, about 25,000 have come back. That's saying something when you know their houses were under 14 feet of water."
Breaux expects shoppers to welcome the arrival of the new store. "I'll have the first store there since Katrina," he said. "People have had to travel 15 miles or so outside the parish for groceries."
Breaux has three stores back in operation in metro New Orleans. Before Katrina, he had four, but one was so severely damaged, it couldn't be "brought back," Breaux said.
It's business as usual, even though the cost of doing business has gone up, local sources told SN. Insurance rates have increased, sheet rock and steel are prohibitively expensive, and labor is scarce in some areas. As a result, everybody, including retailers, has to pay a little more.
In the midst of all the activity, Sunich advises retailers rebuilding and restoring not to skimp on generators or the fuel needed to run them.
"Just let me say this: It'll pay for itself the first time you use it," he said. "It also gives customers confidence that you're taking good care of your perishable products."
Right now, the sound of hammers, saws and dirt movers fills the air and the weather has been cooperative.
"The weather has been very quiet," Rouse said. "It's nice to get a breather. A cool front is coming in, which will protect us from hurricanes, and business is good."
"Even though labor can be a problem, we've increased productivity," he said. "I think local retailers who deal with local suppliers are doing OK here."