What Can Wal-Mart Teach FEMA About Disaster Response?

ByABC News
September 29, 2005, 6:05 PM

LAKE CHARLES, La., Sept. 29, 2005 — -- In the hours after Hurricane Rita made landfall, one emergency operations center was tracking the damage, power outages, and flooding, while sending truckloads of supplies straight to the Gulf Coast.

But the effort was not organized by any government agency. It was happening at Wal-Mart's company headquarters in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas.

During disasters, Wal-Mart puts its own nationwide response center in motion, with sophisticated communications and a state-of-the-art shipping network.

The system is so efficient that after Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart sometimes arrived with much-needed food and supplies before the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA was widely criticized for its slow response to those in need after Katrina hit.

But Wal-Mart's response was faster and, in one case, the company even provided stranded police officers with clothes and ammunition. Now, in areas hit by Rita, Wal-Mart has already shipped donated clothes and supplies. It has even reopened stores in places with no electricity.

"If this place wouldn't be open, we wouldn't have nothing right now," said one resident of Lake Charles, La., where Rita wiped out electricity, phone service and running water."This has been a lifesaving place."

With Wal-Mart's smooth response to Katrina and Rita, some are beginning to ask why government agencies can't perform as well as a discount retailer.

Companies like Home Depot, Lowe's Home Improvement, and the Waffle House restaurant chain have all been noted for their rapid ability to provide relief in disaster.

Should FEMA operate more like major companies? Analysts say it's not quite that simple.

"FEMA has to prioritize search and rescue, and moving equipment, moving people, moving medical supplies," said Jerry Hauer, a homeland security expert and ABC News consultant. "Wal-Mart just has to deliver supplies."

But there are lessons to be learned. Wal-Mart, for instance, requires its top managers to sit together while coordinating its disaster response.