A grocer’s guide to dealing with disasters

Whether it's fires or floods, your store will eventually be called to help out in a community emergency

WEA Alta Flooding 20130620

When ruinous floods hit southern Alberta in June, thousands in the town of High River fled their homes. Many ended up on the floor of Market Street Vulcan, a supermarket 45 minutes down the highway. “They had no food, they had no clothing, there was no cellphone service,” says Scott Mitchell, the store’s owner.

Mitchell and his staff got to work. They handed out food, set up donation bins for clothes, liaised with government officials and held barbecues for evacuees billeted in Vulcan’s homes and schools.

During any disaster, people need the basics: food and shelter. Grocers are experts at the former. No wonder victims, emergency workers, governments and even the Red Cross seek their help.

But if your store has yet to deal with a big emergency, don’t think it never will. Today’s extreme weather makes floods, forest fires and killer storms more common. You need to know what you might face. Start with these tips from those who’ve dealt with chaos first-hand.

Make eating easy. Disaster victims don’t require filet mignon. They need sandwiches, granola bars and water–lots of bottled water! Have enough on hand, and know which suppliers can get them to you fast. Mitchell says his supply volumes increased 68% during the flood.

Another good emergency food: bananas. In the Alberta flood, Safeway kept prepping bananas so they’d be ripe to eat, says Renee Hopfner, Safeway’s corporate social responsibility director.

“You don’t need to wash bananas so there’s no sanitary challenges with them. And you don’t need any utensils to actually eat them,” she explains.

Get prepared now! Mitchell’s quick response to the flood was no accident. Eight months earlier he’d met with county, fire and police officials to go over Vulcan County’s emergency plan. Participants were provided a list of emergency contacts and responsibilities.

Mitchell recommends going over local emergency plans with staff so they can “mentally prepare themselves for the magnitude of what’s involved.”

Make empathy your policy. When the Okanagan Mountain Park fire of 2003 forced 27,000 people to evacuate and destroyed 239 homes, three Save-On Foods in Kelowna, B.C., became go-to destinations for people with food vouchers.

In meetings during the crisis, store manager Dave Blackmore kept reminding his staff to “recognize it’s an emotional time for customers. I told them to do anything we can do to make it easier.”

Mitchell had a similar talk with his team in June. As High River evacuees walked around in a daze, store staff tried to fulfil every victim’s request. For example, they scrounged up a phone charger for one man who desperately wanted to make sure his phone didn’t die, even though cell service was out.

Become a fundraiser. Last year disaster hit Prince George when a local sawmill exploded, killing two. Blackmore’s staff was on the scene that night, handing out water and sandwiches to emergency crews.

The next morning he and the town’s other Save-On managers launched a fundraising campaign to help mill workers suddenly without jobs and the families of those who died. Within three weeks they sent more than $27,000 to the relief fund.

Fact is, there are few better places to raise money in a hurry than a grocery store. “The volume of customers going through there is incredible, says the Red Cross’ Amtul Siddiqui.

Get on social media. Communication goes out the window in a disaster. But Twitter and Facebook can keep store managers in the loop.

One No Frills manager who lived through the forest fire that destroyed Slave Lake, Alta., two years ago told Canadian Grocer he kept in touch with his evacuated staff through Facebook. The connection became critical as he was preparing to reopen after the blaze.

Hopfner says social media let Safeway talk with customers during the Alberta flood. When someone tweeted they were helping set up a barbecue and asked if Safeway had burgers available, Safeway staff thanked the tweeter and informed Twitter followers that Safeway was already at the barbecue with a station ready to go.