Walmart doesn’t normally stock ice melt and snow shovels at its Brownsville, Texas area stores. That changed this week as a massive winter system brought snow, ice, and frigid temperatures to the Lone Star State. As water and food shortages crippled many Texas communities, Walmart’s sophisticated Emergency Operations Center operated at full capacity.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, operates 4748 supercenters and 599 Sam’s Clubs across the United States.
On Tuesday, Winter Storm Uri forced Walmart to close 651 locations from Oregon to Kentucky. This marks the retailer’s largest cluster of temporary closures since Hurricane Irma shuttered 480 Florida Walmarts back in September 2017.
Walmart has reopened many of its stores, although quite a few remain closed. By Wednesday, 245 company locations had reopened. By Friday afternoon, the number had increased to 535.
After the state’s power grid failed on Tuesday, 4.5 million Texans lost electricity. The situation was further complicated as frigid temperatures led to massive water main breaks. It left rural communities and large cities will little to no water pressure. The effects of the storm quickly developed into a humanitarian crisis.
Walmart’s Emergency Operations Center is located at its Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters complex. Arkansas was not spared from the effects of the recent storm. Bentonville’s temperature dropped to -15 degrees on Tuesday.
Lucas McDonald, Walmart’s Director of Emergency Operations, heads the company’s Emergency Operations Center. The facility operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day. The center employs a staff of 30 associates whose sole purpose is to monitor potential crises and maintain communications with impacted stores. When emergency situations arise, the size of the center’s staff often swells to 80 to 100 workers.
Walmart has plenty of experience dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes, tornadoes, and other weather disasters. “Hurricanes may close 100 to 200 stores and are typically focused on parts of a state,” says McDonald. However, the size of the recent storm, along with its geographical location, is not your typical wintertime event.
Since last March, COVID has forced most staff members at the retailer’s Bentonville headquarters to work from home. This includes the staff at Walmart’s Emergency Operations Center. McDonald insists that the currently-virtual operation has not impacted or lessened the effectiveness of the EOC. “COVID has just changed the normal way things work,” says McDonald.
The EOC began monitoring the potential for extreme cold temperatures last week. However, neither the retailer nor national weather service experts “had any idea [that the storm] would turn out the way it did.”
“Water is the most important issue in Texas,” says McDonald. A number of Texan cities are under boil water orders, assuming water is accessible. McDonald says that stores can operate under these mandatory orders but they cannot open if there is no available water.
As of Friday, nearly one half of Texas’ 13 million residents still did not have access to clean drinking water.
Stores under boil water orders also cannot carry a complete complement of fresh items. “It’s a scary situation and incredibly serious.” The storm’s effects have led to significant food shortages, especially in the Austin area.
But by next week, ice melt and snow shovels will no longer be in demand throughout the Lone Star State. Temperatures in Austin are expected to reach 73 degrees next Wednesday.
Walmart is not the only retailer actively working to reopen stores and restock shelves. San Antonio-based grocer H-E-B is being hailed for its storm response. H-E-B immediately implemented power usage limitations at over 300 locations across Texas.
Some social media posts stated that H-E-B allowed customers to take groceries home without payment after rolling power outages shut down electronic checkout registers.
Randall’s, a division of Albertsons, reported that it has fully-stocked delivery trucks on the roads and headed to its Texas supermarkets. However, delivery trucks have arrived at some of its company stores only to find dangerous conditions. Store interiors remain dark and extremely frigid.
McDonald is hopeful that warmer temperatures in the coming days may help “self correct” some of the state’s most pressing issues. He hopes that the number of closed Walmarts will be below 25 by Saturday afternoon.
Though McDonald states that only a few Walmart locations experienced pipe bursts, the situation is entirely different at thousands of homes across the state. Many Texans struggled with dangerously-cold conditions and damaged homes. A simple thaw in temperature will not self correct these unlivable conditions.
Walmart implements a three-step recovery plan after disasters strike. The retailer’s first step is the assessment of the health and status of store associates. That is followed by the process of resuming operations. After the location is up and running, Walmart turns its attention to the community so that critical help and goods can be provided.
The Emergency Operations Center holds frequent virtual meetings with updates and handles 1500 to 2000 daily calls from store managers. It also monitors a store status dashboard that is accessible to the public,
Walmart feels confident that it is capable of confronting the humanitarian issues created by this recent storm. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast back in 2005, Walmart won praise for being the first to assist damaged areas, well before government agencies arrived.
When COVID brought normalcy to a halt last March, only “essential businesses,” from supermarkets to pharmacies, were permitted to operate. Seemingly overnight, retail grocery employees were dubbed first responders and as such, earned admiration and respect.
As Texas slowly recovers and rebuilds, and a pandemic continues, retail employees will perform essential duties. And emergency recovery centers, such as Walmart’s large Bentonville operation, will continue to play a vital recovery role from this past week’s winter disaster.