Supermarkets in the storm-ravaged Northeastern U.S. crept slowly back to life in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, many fueled by generator power and operating with skeleton crews to provide what service they could to their devastated communities.
“It’s not just a handful of communities that have been affected — it’s hundreds of communities,” said Linda Doherty, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Food Council, based in Trenton. “It’s overwhelming. A lot of our members have employees who were displaced as well — it’s mind-numbing to think of all those people who don’t have homes to go to any more.”
Doherty estimated that most of the supermarkets in New Jersey, whose shoreline communities bore the brunt of the storm’s destructive power, were back up and running within a week. Several supermarkets in the region, however — including some in New York — were either destroyed or badly flooded by the historically high tidal surge that accompanied what some had dubbed “Frankenstorm” as it slammed ashore two days before Halloween.
In Hoboken, N.J., a ShopRite remained shuttered a week after floodwaters turned part of the low-lying city into a sewage-contaminated lake.
“We don’t have a timeline [to reopen the store] at this point,” a spokeswoman for Keasbey, N.J.-based Wakefern told SN. “Hoboken was hit pretty hard.”
Not far away, a Fairway in Red Hook, Brooklyn, was so badly flooded that the interior was basically gutted, and reports indicated it could take months to reopen.
Local reports also cited damage to other stores throughout the region, and some stores remained closed due to lack of power.
Immediately following the storm, about 2.6 million New Jersey homes and businesses were without electricity, and a million of those remained off the power grid a full week later. In addition, both retailers and consumers faced a severe fuel crisis as the gas-distribution infrastructure was crippled.
“Food, fuel and power are the trinity of a civil society, and when these three commodities became compromised all at once for a sustained period of time, this created the public panic and consumer uncertainty we experienced in New Jersey,” Doherty told SN.
Through its experience in coping with past crises, the NJFC had developed a disaster preparedness plan that it was able to put to use in the wake of Sandy, Doherty explained.
“It helped in terms of the interdependencies, working with the state agencies and the other private-sector industries — the petroleum industry and the utilities industries,” she said.
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Doherty worked from the state’s Regional Operations Intelligence Center — dubbed “the Rock” — in West Trenton, helping coordinate food distribution, power restoration and other issues of concern to the association’s members and their communities. The NJFC is a co-chair of the 20-industry private-sector task force that works at the ROIC during emergency situations.
“Last year, it was as if Hurricane Irene was a test run for this catastrophe,” she said. “We worked out many of the kinks with that last storm, and we were a pretty well-oiled machine at the ROIC, working with our government partners. We are in the right position at the right time to help lead our communities out of this disaster.”
She noted that when it became obvious that power would be out for an extended time in many areas — some power lines were not just knocked down, but swept away into the ocean — the NJFC suggested to its members that they donate their product to local food banks before it spoiled, and it supplied members with the contact information for food banks in areas of need.
“Having the foresight at the very beginning of the storm to do that I think helped a lot of communities,” she said.
Before and After the Storm
With several days of warning before the storm hit, many supermarket companies in the region were able to send extra product to stores, stock up additional supplies in warehouses, and maneuver into disaster-recovery mode. Still, the unexpected severity of the storm — the tidal surge in many areas surpassed some of the most dire predictions — left many supermarkets in the region with empty shelves for days after the storm hit.
Supermarkets posted updates on their websites and through social media not only detailing what stores were open and closed, but apologizing in advance for service issues due to the lack of product and staffing shortages.
At Wakefern, a spokeswoman said the company’s Elizabeth, N.J., warehouse was operating on generator power with a reduced staff immediately following the storm. The company listed more than 40 ShopRites that were still closed two days later, but more and more came back online each day. By Nov. 5, a week after the storm, all 240 stores in the chain were operating with the exception of the Hoboken store.
John Catsimatidis, chairman and chief executive officer of New York-based Gristedes, said 11 of the chain’s 32 locations were without power for about week after the storm, and some stores suffered damage to their compressors. He estimated the total damage — including discarded perishables — at about $3 million for his chain.
Read more: Retailers Contribute to Sandy Relief Effort
New York-based Key Foods listed five stores on its website that remained closed a week after the storm, and local reports said at least one of those locations had been hit by looters.
Online grocers FreshDirect and Peapod suspended deliveries in the New York area during and after the storm due to power outages and road closures.
A spokesman for Minneapolis-based Supervalu, which operates the Acme chain in the Philadelphia area and in New Jersey and also supplies independent stores in the region, told SN the company “fared well” in the storm.
“Our team did an excellent job getting generators, refrigerated trucks and dry ice to the locations that needed them, and we were able to save a lot of product,” said Michael Siemienas, the Supervalu spokesman.
A week after the storm, two of the company’s 117 Acme locations — both located on barrier islands in New Jersey — remained closed with water damage, and several stores were still running on generator power, he explained. He said he did not yet know the extent of the damage to the two shore locations.
Photo gallery: Mixed Bag: Sandy in Supermarkets
The company’s distribution facilities in the region were up and running immediately after the storm, Siemienas said, although many independent customers remained without power. He noted that the company was seeking to source some product from other parts of the country in situations where local vendors were unable to provide adequate supply because of Sandy.
Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets, which operates several stores in New Jersey, said all of its stores were open within days of the storm, although it noted that it was facing challenges getting employees to its stores due to the gas shortage, and was having trouble keeping essentials in stock due to road closures.
Doherty of the NJFC said that in the past the importance of supermarkets in the wake of disasters was often overlooked, but people have come to realize their critical role in rebuilding communities.
“When you see that your supermarket is up and running and the lights are on, that gives you a sense of community and that everything is OK,” she said. “I think that’s really important for people who have so much uncertainty in their lives — it gives them a sense of comfort.”
Tweeting the News
Supermarket chains in the New York/New Jersey region sought to stay in touch with their shoppers via their websites and using social media before, during and after Hurricane Sandy.
Some posted hurricane advisories and links to weather websites as the storm approached, then shifted to posting store-closure notices when the storm knocked out power to millions throughout the region.
Following is a sampling of Tweets posted by area chains in the wake of Sandy:
• D’Agostino (@YourDAGNYC): Our Third Avenue stores will be receiving shipments of perishable foods over the course of the next few days — thank you for your patience!
• Pathmark (@Pathmark): Our pharmacies are here to provide emergency prescription service. Bring in your prescription bottle so that we may assist you.
Read more: Wegmans Informs Shoppers With #WegSandy
• Fairway Market (@FairwayMarket): We are at work already @FairwayMarket #RedHook! We appreciate all the love we’ve been receiving from our customers!
• ShopRite Stores (@ShopRiteStores): ShopRite of Passaic is up and running! Thanks for your patience!
• Whole Foods Market (@wholefoodsnyc): More MTA updates - F train has limited service between 179th & Ave X. Q train has resumed service between Kings Hwy & Atlantic Ave #NYC
• Kings Food Markets (@KingsFoodMkts): Our Hoboken stores are working to return to normal hours. North Hoboken will be open 7a-10p, and South Hoboken will be open 8a-10p. #njopen
• Best Yet Market (@BestYetMarket): And..We’re Back All Stores are back up and running. So enjoy some delicious Salmon Fillets tn for only 4.99 lb.
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