Commissaries keep benefit flowing despite hurricanes
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Despite a historic weather season where three Category 4 hurricanes made landfall in the same year, the Defense Commissary Agency and its industry partners helped ensure the commissary benefit continued to flow before, during and after the storms.
Commissaries in several states and Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are busy attempting to return to normal operations as yet another storm, Hurricane Maria, made landfall on the island on Sept. 20.
"Over the years, commissaries have dealt with all manner of natural and manmade crises," said DeCA Acting Director and CEO Michael Dowling. "For these hurricanes, our dedicated employees and industry partners recognized they had a mission to deliver the benefit, and that it's not always done on a calm, sunny day."
During this busiest of hurricane seasons, more than 30 commissaries impacted by the recent hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and North Carolina either closed or adjusted operating hours after first supplying products to patrons who used their benefit to bolster their emergency supply kits.
To date, the commissaries at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, and Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, remain closed after direct hits from Hurricanes Irma and Maria, respectively. Buchanan's operating status could change on Sept. 22 pending the installation's assessment of the facility and available employees.
As the storms approached, these stores were in full preparation mode, said Ron McMasters, director of the agency's Central Area. Emergency generators were dispatched to commissaries in the immediate impact area, and stores worked with suppliers to ensure they had enough products on hand.
"In most communities, our commissaries were the only sources of bottled water and non-perishable food in the projected storm track areas," McMasters said. "Many stores downtown had already run short of products due to severe panic-buying. Although some commissaries experienced momentary strain with the availability of certain items, we still maintained sufficient merchandise on hand to see our stores through this emergency period."
At Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, commissary store director Marlin Dotson, had little time on Aug. 24 to prepare when Hurricane Harvey shifted from a Category 1 storm to a Category 4.
"Before and after the hurricane, our store associates at NAS Corpus Christi and [annex store] NAS Kingsville commissaries worked together making several trips shipping food, including 12 pallets of water, from Corpus to Kingsville in our small bobtail truck that only holds four pallets," Dotson said.
When the installations at Corpus Christi and Kingsville needed their commissaries to open on Aug. 29, the stores obliged albeit with skeletal staffs. "We only had one meat cutter all week from Tuesday through Friday cutting meat," Dotson added.
The ad hoc support wasn't lost on installation officials like Kingsville Public Affairs Officer Kevin Clarke, who voiced his thanks that the commissary was open.
"The NAS Kingsville Commissary team kept the store open as long as possible to ensure authorized patrons could stock up on water and other essentials as Hurricane Harvey tracked toward the South Texas coast," Clarke said. "After the storm had passed, they quickly conducted a damage assessment and offered to open the store at the commanding officer's discretion. Their support for the Kingsville community was exemplary."
At the Fort Buchanan Commissary, Puerto Rico, store director William Roger had seen his share of anxious patrons preparing for Irma before the hurricane impacted the island Sept. 6. Now, 13 days later, he was experiencing déjà vu from Hurricane Maria with his store aisles crowded with patrons stocking up on water, canned goods, batteries and other key emergency items.
"From Sept. 1-5, it was a frenzy with many of our customers trying to purchase items for preparation," said Roger about preparations for Hurricane Irma. "Although we had long lines trying to get into the commissary and long lines inside the store, customers were very supportive and appreciative of all the support the commissary was providing to them."
In many cases, the commissaries were the last support facilities to remain open on evacuating installations to take care of patrons before the store staffs evacuated. For DeCA, keeping the commissary benefit flowing despite the hurricanes was only possible thanks to the agency's network of industry partners, McMasters said. For example, he pointed out that on Sept. 5, commissaries in Florida began to run out of water. Before Irma reached Cuba, Naval Air Station Jacksonville Commissary had already sold four truckloads (6,336 24-packs) in five hours. Less than 24 hours later, Acosta/Nestle had 44 truckloads of water on the road from Massachusetts to replenish Florida, Georgia and South Carolina stores.
"All 44 truckloads were delivered by Sept. 9, a truly phenomenal accomplishment in light of having to quickly load the vans, find third-party drivers and make multiple adjustments to delivery points as the storm closed in on Florida," McMasters said.
"Much of this water was sold within hours after arrival to our stores. Coca-Cola and Pepsi companies also stepped up and augmented the effort," he added. "For semi-perishable merchandise, MDV and SuperValu trucks also made most of their scheduled deliveries which were critical to the resupply of much-needed emergency items."