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Wal-Mart:  Steadfast Always
World’s Largest Retailer Was A Hero In the Days Following Katrina. So Why All The Negative Press?

Part 1 of 2 

By Perry Hicks- Special to GulfCoastNews.com
Photos by Mark Proulx and Keith Burton

An alarming number of American companies have come under siege by unions and left wing activists, some of whom are of foreign origin; the frequency and virulence of the attacks alone are suggestive of a movement.  Even more disquieting are how scurrilous claims go unchallenged in the press lending these charges a visage of credibility, a subject that will be examined in Part 2.     

Coca-Cola  is being accused of lowering ground water tables thus depriving farmers of their livelihood; In Europe, Apple Computer is fighting multiple battles to keep its proprietary music player technology (iPod) out of the hands of rival companies; and Wal-Mart is ostracized for having an operational efficiency that makes possible selling goods at everyday low prices.

Contrary to what is unwarranted criticism, Wal-Mart's position in communities proved to be a real benefit and a demonstration of the company's heart in how it handled the disaster that befell cities in the Katrina Disaster Zone.

For example in Waveland, Mississippi, ground-zero for Katrina, Wal-Mart is seen as a hero and everyone there knows it.

That is not to say any corporation, like any individual, is perfect. This lack of "perfection" is a truth that propagandists use to exploit any failure as wantonly malevolent. However, lacking anything substantive, detractors will certainly not shrink from creating condemnatory issues out of whole cloth.

For example, the left’s coined phrase of “high cost of low prices” is really an attempt to move the public to accept something they ordinarily would not: High prices.

Of course, the flip side to this phrase is the “high cost of high prices.”  Low income Americans and the elderly living on fixed incomes emphatically do need reliably low prices.

Even more bizarre is how the left actually laments the way Wal-Mart wins business away from smaller, less efficient and therefore considerably more expensive, “mom and pop” stores.  Far-left apologists actually portray discount retailing combined with good service as constituting what they see as an unfair advantage.

Never mind that Wal-Mart was once a small town business itself.  What powered it to its sheer size and iconic status was the hard honest work of its people and the inspired vision of its founder, Sam Walton.  Wal-Mart simply grew to be a goliath by outperforming its competition.

Predictably, the left considers commercial success so undesirable that the very presence of a Wal-Mart is depicted as being detrimental to the community.

The left will not acknowledge how Wal-Mart employment gives hundreds of thousands of everyday rural Americans jobs and benefits independent from their local power elite. 

The left will not acknowledge how Wal-Mart’s massive size has benefited communities because its ample resources can be brought to bear on emergencies as it did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Indeed, this story is worth recounting because in the days immediately following the storm, Wal-Mart was the only organization ready and able to provide meaningful humanitarian aid.  Every dedicated disaster relief organization was days from having a presence much less being able to provide food, clothing, and sometimes shelter to exhausted storm survivors.

Wal-Mart Relieved Suffering 

As Katrina’s storm waters receded from Waveland, Mississippi, what emerged was a scene of utter desperation.  Should an operable vehicle be had, there was no way to drive out of the affected area because the roads were either filled with debris or, like the coastal highway, otherwise impassable.  The power grid was also wrecked as was the telephone system.

(Photo, left, shows a typical Waveland street after the road was cleared. The debris is what remains of dozens of homes on the street.)

In Waveland, government was literally brought to its knees because all of its offices had been destroyed.  Alternate locations were rendered unusable by the filth and muck left behind by storm surge flood waters.  Police and Fire units could not otherwise function because their radio towers had been blown down and all of their vehicles had been destroyed.

Those who survived the storm surge literally needed everything.  The basics were paramount: Clean, dry clothes, food, and water.  However, Waveland’s small business community was also destroyed.  There was literally nothing to purchase had purchasing been possible.

Note that debit and credit cards require modern communication infrastructure in order to complete retail transactions.  As stated earlier, telecommunications was non-existent. Furthermore, no banks were open, and even if they were, over the short term there was no way they could satisfy the demand for hard cash.  Currency was something few survivors were in possession.

What did remain however damaged, was the local Wal-Mart and it immediately became the focus for those needing help.

Stories of Wal-Mart employee heroism abound across the entire region.  In Waveland, store co-manager Jessica Lewis initiated the first relief effort in her city by taking upon herself to distribute what could be salvaged from her flooded Supercenter.

“Wal-Mart was wonderful!  In a controlled way, they let people get what they needed,” Kathy Pinn, donations coordinator for the City of Waveland, told GCN.  “Without Wal-Mart, the suffering would have been much greater,” she added.

Because the Waveland Wal-Mart building had been inundated to about 13 feet, salvageable goods had to be brought out onto the parking lot.  That alone was a monumental task because a typical Supercenter contains about 142 thousand items.

Cleaning out the Waveland store and setting up an outdoor tent operation was done by employees, some of whom, like their customers, had lost everything.  According to Wal-Mart, the free distribution of goods continued for about two weeks when other relief operations were finally available.

However, Wal-Mart’s aid didn’t end there.  While some could argue that it never stopped, Walmart can also to be said to be the first major business to return to full operation.

Wal-Mart also donated $50 thousand to the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce for assistance in reestablishing small business in the city.  Overall, Wal-Mart has given $17 million toward relief efforts.

Size Does Matter

Wal-Mart could make the difference not just because of the small town values of its people, but the sheer size of its operations.  Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer whose reach literally spans the globe.

Because the world is a dangerous place, Wal-Mart must constantly watch for and assess threats to its global operations.  It does this with its own 24/7 NORAD-style (North American Air Defense) Emergency Operations Center (EOC), located near Wal-Mart’s World Headquarters, in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Threats range from an airport bomb scare in Turkey to a hurricane entering the Gulf of Mexico.  Each threat is given a rating and the appropriate level of response is taken to meet each challenge.  A major event, such as a Category 5 hurricane, brings top management and logistics experts directly into EOC so that critical decisions can be made instantly and done so with all parties interacting face-to-face.

For example, an important Cat 5 decision could be something as mundane sounding as diverting Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear from Wisconsin to an endangered town like Waveland.  Other decisions would be for how to shift company assets, like re-routing supply trucks, or even how to assist employees who were themselves refugees.

To this last point, Wal-Mart guaranteed any Katrina displaced employee a job at any store in the United States and authorized a $250 emergency cash stipend to be paid out to any Katrina displaced employee from any store anywhere in the United States.  An employee hotline was also set up in Bentonville to assist employees in coping with their personal situations.

Wal-Mart was prepared for Katrina because its EOC had tracked the storm as it crossed over Florida and into the warm Gulf waters.  Having dealt with several other storms in recent weeks, EOC was at the top of its game when it notified management of a likely landfall somewhere along the east Texas-Louisiana-western Mississippi coastline.

Unlike governmental hand-sitters, Wal-Mart management reacted immediately and had critical items rushed to distribution centers close to the threatened region.  Because of the EOC’s forecast and Wal-Mart’s massive distribution machinery, relief supplies were available days before either FEMA or the American Red Cross could even set up their first folding table.

Getting loads of ice and water into the devastated areas sometimes meant having to clear a path ahead of the supply convoys.  Because fuel and mechanical repairs were unavailable for a 150 mile radius from the point of landfall, Wal-Mart also had to make contingency plans to fuel and repair its trucks as they made their way through the devastated region.

Wal-Mart’s provision for fuel was particularly cogent because first responders, including the military and state and federal emergency management officials, ran out of fuel in the first days after the storm.

Lifeline for Civil Government

The sales tax revenue stream that makes government possible literally dried up with the total destruction of Waveland’s small businesses.

Because real estate taxes are largely collected with mortgage payments and kept in escrow, at least for the short term, this source of revenue was not in doubt.  However, owing to the great number of bare slabs left by Katrina and the resultant decline in property valuations, in subsequent years real estate tax revenue will fall sharply.

Thus, the reestablishment of a sales tax revenue stream was critical to help finance the continuance of civil government.  As stated earlier, Wal-Mart’s quick return to retail operations provided critically needed funds necessary to the support of local government.

Wal-Mart Quick Facts

Wal-Mart’s Logistics has estimated for GCN that 900 trucks were used to deliver 1200 to1500 loads of emergency relief supplies traveling approximately 360,000 miles with an average distance of 300 miles per load.

Assuming an average truck load of 50 thousand pounds, Wal-Mart delivered 700 million pounds of relief supplies into the storm affected region.

As of May 2006, Wal-Mart's presence in Mississippi includes:

  • Supercenters:                             54
  • Discount Stores:                         11
  • Neighborhood Markets:               1
  • SAM'S CLUBS:                           6
  • Distribution Centers:                    2

Average store size (national average)

  • Supercenter: 185,000 sq. ft. with approx. 142,000 items
  • Discount Store: 101,000 sq. ft. with approx. 120,000 items
  • Neighborhood Market: 41,000 sq. ft. with approx. 29,000 items
  • SAM'S CLUB: 130,000 sq. ft. with approx. 5,500 items
  • Total number of Wal-Mart associates in Mississippi is 26,793  

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. purchased $389,405,493 worth of merchandise and services from 878 suppliers located in Mississippi.  This business relationship thus supports 38,923 supplier jobs.

In 2005, Wal-Mart collected on behalf of Mississippi more than $294.2 million in sales taxes.  In the same period, Wal-Mart paid more than $37.6 million in state and local taxes.

Wal-Mart also gave to local causes and organizations a total of $3,901,543 in cash and in-kind donations.

Bashing Wal-Mart

Despite the way Wal-Mart has handled Katrina, detractors continue to unfairly tarnish Wal-Mart’s reputation with outdated or otherwise misleading arguments such as repeating the claim that Wal-Mart is harmful to communities.

Wal-Mart is also accused of paying poverty wages that force its employees onto public assistance, a serious sounding claim that will not hold up even under cursory examination.

Amazingly, these charges seem to have permeated the public’s awareness, even to the level of self-professed conservatives who should actually know better.

They should know better because these allegations are part of a coordinated campaign by two frustrated unions who have failed to organize a single store or distribution center within the continental United States.  They make these charges in an effort to bring the retail giant to accept collective bargaining.  The press has failed to critically analyze the claims, accepting even the most ridiculous arguments as absolute fact.

In Part 2, GCN not only examines, but deconstructs ludicrous left-wing/ union allegations against Wal-Mart.

About the Author.....

Perry Hicks is the senior writer for GCN. He is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and a frequent contributor to GCN writing on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.

Contact the Author: arielsquarefour@hotmail.com

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