WEARY FLORIDA RETAILERS WORK TO REOPEN AFTER QUADRUPLE HIT

MIAMI -- The back-to-back-to-back-to-back hurricanes that slammed the Southeastern United States during the past several weeks have forced hundreds of store closures and caused severe damage to dozens of retail outlets.As of last week, however, retailers contacted by SN reported that all but a handful of their stores were up and running at near-normal levels after visits from Hurricanes Charley, Frances,

MIAMI -- The back-to-back-to-back-to-back hurricanes that slammed the Southeastern United States during the past several weeks have forced hundreds of store closures and caused severe damage to dozens of retail outlets.

As of last week, however, retailers contacted by SN reported that all but a handful of their stores were up and running at near-normal levels after visits from Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne, thanks to some advance planning by management and overtime efforts from employees to assist in the recovery.

"We're back to almost normal," said Calvin Miller, president and chief executive officer, Associated Grocers of Florida, Miami, in an interview with SN last week. "We went through some out-of-stocks for a couple of weeks, but we're almost back. We worked around the clock seven days a week, and now we're up and running."

He estimated that about 35 stores in the cooperative lost power during Hurricane Jeanne, the latest storm to hammer the Southeast when it sliced into Florida's Atlantic Coast just over a week ago.

"The middle of the state got hit pretty hard, but being the grocers and entrepreneurs that they are, they fought through, opened their stores and got their electricity back," Miller said.

To help members preserve as much of their perishable product as possible during the power outages, AG sent refrigerated trucks to many of its members' stores for them to use as storage. Still, Miller said, many retailers were unable to salvage their perishable inventories.

"They had to dump a lot of product," he said. "They lost a lot of money."

Out-of-stocks were a problem during the rapid-fire series of storms, Miller explained, because of the difficulty in getting merchandise delivered to the co-op's warehouses from suppliers. With power out in many areas, trains were not running, and with constant forecasts of more hurricanes, truck drivers were unwilling to enter the state for fear of being trapped.

"We were also out of fuel down here, because they closed the ports to tankers to come in with fuel in them" Miller added. "Trucks wouldn't come in if they didn't have the fuel to get out."

The company had made contingency plans to deliver to its stores from one or the other of its two main warehouses -- in Ocala, Fla., and Miami -- if the other one was forced to shut down. Despite some damage to the Ocala facility in the most recent storm, however, both warehouses remained open.

He also said he received offers of help from other cooperatives in the Southeast -- specifically Associated Grocers of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, and Affiliated Foods Southwest, Little Rock, Ark.

"They said, 'Hey, we're here with whatever you need,"' Miller said, noting that they offered both bottled water and trucks. "Fortunately, we didn't need them, but it was damn nice to know they are out there."

As of late last week, Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla., said two stores were still closed because of Hurricane Jeanne: one in Freeport in the Bahamas -- where Winn-Dixie operates 12 supermarkets -- and the other in Micco, Fla. The latter store had suffered some structural damage and was expected to reopen at any time, according to Terry Derreberry, a spokeswoman for the company, which has more than 400 stores in Florida.

In addition, two additional Winn-Dixie stores in Florida remained closed due to damage last week, she said: one store in Wauchula, which was damaged in Hurricane Charley in August, and one store in Ocochobe, which was damaged in Hurricane Frances.

Because of power outages in various areas of the state, about 25 additional stores in Florida were running on generator power last week selling only nonperishables, she said.

"Everything else is open, so we're doing quite well," she said.

She said the company was still assessing its losses in terms of sales and product from the storms, and could not yet provide a monetary value for the losses.

Kathy Lussier, another Winn-Dixie spokeswoman, told SN that after Hurricane Charley came through in August, employees banded together and made a great effort to reopen the stores that had been affected by the storm.

"We had a lot of heroes that we're really proud of," she said. "We had one store manager whose home was really damaged, and other managers helped that manager get his store open."

In addition, the company organized 11 teams of seven employees each from areas of the state that were not affected -- including district managers, merchandisers and others -- to fan out over the affected areas and help with the repair work. The company had about 80 stores that were impacted by Charley, she said, including 66 that were closed on the first day after the storm.

A spokesman for Albertsons' Florida division said that chain had closed 11 stores after the most recent storm, including eight along Florida's east coast that were shuttered until further notice because of power outages. Three Albertsons stores in central Florida were scheduled to reopen soon after the storm.

A spokesman for Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., said the chain had "some power issues and some perishables issues throughout the state," although he declined to be more specific.

Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark., had closed a total of 120 stores and distribution facilities because of Hurricane Jeanne, although almost all of them reopened within two days. Several were closed because of evacuations, and some because of power outages, Gus Whitcomb, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, told SN.

"We do have a couple of stores that were damaged, but that's par for the course with these hurricanes," he said.

He declined to discuss losses the company incurred due to lost sales or structural damages.

A spokesman for Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., whose stores were affected by all four of the hurricanes, said the company had assembled a cross-functional team that met continuously throughout the hurricanes to make sure stores had enough product in advance of the storms and that they could remain in-stock after the hurricanes passed through.

He said the chain, which only had to close one store for about five days, suffered "very little loss of perishables."