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Wal-Mart puts FEMA to shame

Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the nation, has become the favorite target of those who say it gives its thousands of employees poor pay and benefits. It also is facing a sex-discrimination lawsuit.

I don't have the information I need to evaluate these charges, which Wal-Mart top management vigorously denies. Before going any further, let me state for the record that I know no Wal-Mart executives, mid-managers or sales associates. In fact, I've never even been in a Wal-Mart store. Nor do I own any Wal-Mart stock.

My friends and colleagues, mostly of liberal persuasion who have been highly critical of Wal-Mart's policies, will undoubtedly challenge much of what I have to say in this column and charge that I've sold out to corporate interests. But the facts are what they are, and without going into the corporation's personnel practices and policies, I have to salute Wal-Mart for its role in responding to the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina on the nation's Gulf Coast.

On Sept. 9, this newspaper noted how much better Wal-Mart performed in moving key goods to the stricken area than the Federal Emergency Management Agency had. The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 12 noted that FEMA "could learn some things from Wal-Mart." Wal-Mart frequently beat FEMA in getting trucks filled with emergency supplies to relief workers and residents whose lives were dramatically impacted by the storm.

Unlike the federal government, Wal-Mart had a specific protocol for responding to disasters and was able to activate an emergency command center to coordinate a specific and immediate response, something FEMA could not do.

Wal-Mart also had one individual, Jason Jackson, the director of business continuity, to direct its activities. Jackson, who has a degree in emergency management and security management, did his job well. .

Wal-Mart had as its most immediate priority the task of refilling the merchandise in its impacted stores. But it also aided the stricken areas with basic supplies such as diapers and toothbrushes it donated to relief centers in the three storm-impacted states. The day after the hurricane hit, Wal-Mart supplied two truckloads of flashlights, batteries and ready-to-eat meals. FEMA was not in action at all at this point in time.

Wal-Mart also donated some $3 million in basic supplies to relief centers in the three states. Wal-Mart, unlike FEMA, had its own trucks, distribution centers and the specific protocol for responding to disasters, a distinct advantage in responding without delay to emergencies. Even before the storm made landfall, Jackson had acted, ordering Wal-Mart warehouses to deliver generators, dry ice and bottled water to designated staging areas so that company stores could reopen quickly.

When the hurricane did strike the area, he immediately ordered a team of Wal-Mart people to respond to the need for more mops and bleach. Initially, 126 Wal-Mart facilities were closed because they were in the projected path of Katrina. A total of 89 reported some damage but most were able to reopen fairly quickly because Wal-Mart had properly prepared.

The tragedy is that FEMA, which should have been prepared to cope with Katrina, did not have the knowledge or the resources to react immediately to the worst storm in the nation's history. Wal-Mart, a private corporation, was much better prepared. The presence of one trained professional like Jackson made a difference. Unfortunately, FEMA was not prepared to cope with a major disaster.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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