As Hurricane Harvey made landfall, organizations, like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and first responders alike prepared to mobilize to help. And so did another company less known for disaster relief: H-E-B, the supermarket chain out of San Antonio with stores across South and Central Texas. Texans in those parts of the state have a long-remarked-upon fondness for the chain. It’s up there with Whataburger and Topo Chico in the hearts of people raised with the supermarket. But even the staunchest H-E-B enthusiast might have been surprised to see the convoys of trucks, mobile kitchens, and other relief units branded with the store’s logos making their way to the affected areas.
That H-E-B employs a full-time Director of Emergency Preparedness is unusual, but not unheard of. There are other companies, like Walmart, with a role ensuring that the chain’s stores are able to provide groceries to affected communities in a timely manner. But the existence of relief units—H-E-B has three mobile kitchens, a Disaster Relief Unit that offers other services, and two water tankers—is something that may be unique among retailers. And while it’s not H-E-B’s job to take on relief duties in communities ravaged by events like Harvey, the chain prides itself on its emergency response and support. To better understand how it works, we caught up with Justen Noakes, Director of Emergency Preparedness for H-E-B, after he finally had a chance to get some sleep a week and a half into the efforts around Hurricane Harvey. It’s a long-term project—Noakes and the company are still very much in the thick of it—but the role of a corporate citizen like H-E-B is something to which he’s given a good deal of thought.
Dan Solomon: What does the Emergency Preparedness Department at H-E-B do?
Justen Noakes, Director of Emergency Preparedness, H-E-B: We are focused on taking care of our customers and our partners, and the number one way we do that is having our stores up and running. My number one goal on a daily basis is, any type of natural or manmade disaster that could affect the way that we operate business, I’m responsible for bringing a solution forward. That includes hurricanes, power outages, boil orders—we were very active during the H1N1 incident a couple years ago.
DS: What we saw during the Harvey response wasn’t just keeping stores open, it was direct relief in the forms of mobile kitchens and supply convoys. How long has H-E-B taken on that responsibility?
JN: That goes back to who H-E-B is as a company. Whenever I talk to H-E-B’s emergency preparedness program, I start with who we are as an organization, being founded in Texas in 1905 in Kerrville by Florence Butt. We have a long history in the state of Texas and being part of the state of Texas. It’s one of those things where not only are we a retailer in Texas, we’re a part of Texas culture and a part of who Texas is. All of our employees are from Texas, all of our leaders live in Texas. It’s not only a matter of are we a retailer in the state of Texas—it’s part of our makeup and our DNA. When you talk about these disasters and how they impact H-E-B, it’s how they impact our home. We treat our partners and our customers as family. When you talk about a disaster such as Hurricane Harvey, we do everything we can to not only recover our stores but also recover our communities, because that’s where we’re from as well. It’s not only a matter of bringing our stores up as quickly as possible, but the sooner that we can provide relief and the comfort and the items that people need to return themselves to normalcy, the better off the whole community is. We look at it not only from an entrepreneurial perspective, but also from a community perspective, as well.
DS: How long were you following Hurricane Harvey in the days before its path became clear?
JN: We’re constantly monitoring weather patterns across the state. During this time of year, we know that August and September are the biggest hurricane times for the state of Texas. We’re constantly monitoring the tropics. Whenever there’s something coming off the coast of Africa, we’re keeping a watchful eye. Every day there’s a report that we monitor that shows us what our risks are and what’s happening in the Atlantic that could be a threat to the state of Texas. We were watching Harvey the week before it actually formed, so when it started making its way into the Yucatan, that’s when we started paying attention and activated our emergency process the Monday before landfall. Anytime we think that there’s a threat to the state of Texas, we know there’s gonna be impact. That might be power outages or small localized flooding, but we’re always planning for one storm category higher than currently exists. So we were preparing for a Category 1 hurricane. When Harvey spun into a Category 4, we were disappointed, but it didn’t catch us off-guard. We were prepared for a fairly significant impact. We’re watching around the clock, and we have things in place inherently during hurricane season regardless of the situation in the tropics in preparation of something of that magnitude.
DS: How many people are responsible for monitoring those situations?
JN: As a department of one, it’s constantly on my radar screen. However, we do have services that help us monitor those situations. Yesterday, as we were continuing our work through Harvey, I did get a call from our weather monitoring service saying, ‘Hey, we probably need to keep an eye on Irma.’ There are no models or forecasts that have Irma coming into the coastline of Texas, but there’s always a risk that it could shift. We’re constantly paying attention and monitoring it closely.
DS: H-E-B has had mobile kitchens since the early ’80’s. What other relief units do you have now?
JN: We have our disaster response unit. That’s a mobile pharmacy and business center. After a storm such as Hurricane Harvey, those core services are non-existent in the impact areas, so we’ve built these capabilities into our mobile units. We’ve really discovered that the quicker we can get these into the impact area, the quicker the community can return to normalcy. So the disaster response unit coupled with emergency kitchens really brings a lot of relief to those in a quick manner. You not only have food but you have water—a lot of the time we’ll hand out ice as part of the process. The DRU allows you to fill prescriptions and do check-cashing. We have two water tankers that we really employ year-round in service to our stores. Anytime there’s a boil order or the water system in a community is compromised, we can deploy our water tankers to those stores, connect those stores, and run them like they’re on public utility. One thing we can do is bring those water tankers into an impact area.
DS: What models inspired H-E-B to have these direct relief services?
JN: I’ll be honest with you, we didn’t really model it after anything. Our program is really built around what we need to provide services to our community after a disaster. A lot of that is built on lessons learned. After Hurricane Rita, we had the mobile kitchens, but what we realized that if we’re truly going to support our community after these events, we have to have the DRU and significant mobile kitchens to provide large amounts of food, and we have to have the water tankers. I don’t think we developed it after the model of another retailer—we developed it based on H-E-B, and what we do on a daily basis in our communities, and what our customers and partners need from us. I think we’re unique in those regards, honestly.
DS: How do you decide where to deploy resources when the affected area is as large as Harvey’s?
JN: We get feedback from our employees who are at these disaster areas, from our partner at the State Operations Center in Austin, and we bring those together to determine what the biggest need is, based on what we’re hearing from boots on the ground. We look at where the resources from the state are already deployed, then we ask how we can support the most people with the tools that we have. It’s really collaborative. What you don’t want to do is go into an area that already has a mobile kitchen in it, because then you’re leaving another area out. It’s a coordinated effort, and the H-E-B boots on the ground are really critical to that—as well as what’s happening in the state of Texas, from a Salvation Army perspective, or a Red Cross perspective, or a Texas Baptist Men perspective.
DS: What was the situation like within H-E-B as it became clear that the storm was going to hit on Friday?
JN: At the Emergency Operations Center here in San Antonio, we had been operating for three days, almost 24-7 around the clock, watching Hurricane Harvey spin up to a category 4 hurricane. There was a lot of anxiety and a lot of emotion running high. A lot of people in the EOC working tirelessly to ensure that their areas were taken care of. It was one of those hurry-up-and-wait situations when it was making landfall, but we had moved a ton of products and positioned our partners in the impact areas, and we had started prepping the mobile kitchens and DRUs. One of the things we did is monitor the wind speed, so we can start closing down our stores and ensuring our partners are safe. Then we watch the storm as it makes landfall, and as soon as the 35mph winds exit the area, we have teams tasked with going to the facility to ensure that the infrastructure and the structural integrity is solid, and we also do a quick evaluation of the mechanical, electrical, refrigeration, and computer systems to see if we can open up the store. Then it’s a question of if it’s safe from an environment perspective and from a law enforcement perspective. Do we have enough partners to open? Are there customers? A lot of the time when we roll up to these stores after a disaster, we’ll have customers waiting out in front of our stores waiting for us to open. We’re very cognizant of the need in a community: If there’s not a need, we’ll still open, but if people are waiting for us, we’ll put an emphasis on getting that store open as soon as possible. It’s a very concentrated effort, and one that we’ve been developing since Hurricane Rita.
DS: What’s been the most intense part of the past week and a half for you?
JN: We received a phone call Thursday morning from the emergency management coordinator for the city of Beaumont, after they lost their tube pumps and the city was surrounded by floodwater. They lost all water pressure, and it was the toughest day in my 24-year career at H-E-B when the city of Beaumont called asking ‘What do we do now that we have no water pressure in the city and the city’s surrounded by water?’ It was a surreal moment when he asked H-E-B to help. He had already asked for help from the state of Texas, and they had given him a timeline that wasn’t acceptable in his opinion. And he said, ‘I know that I’m asking a lot, but what can H-E-B do to get water to the citizens of Beaumont?’ You have to pause for a moment to consider the gravity of the situation, and what’s going on, and what are your next steps to make that happen, and I can tell you that from that moment on, out of everything that H-E-B did from our perspective, we mobilized tankers, we mobilized tractor-trailers of water, and we got those on the road and we got those into Beaumont on Thursday when nobody else could. I was a little disappointed in FEMA, because I saw on a news report that FEMA couldn’t get trailer-loads of water into Beaumont on Thursday afternoon. We had been going through two feet of water in our tractor-trailers with our senior vice president of supply chain in the lead truck, delivering those trailer-loads of water. We had ten tankers of water in Beaumont by the close of business on Thursday. I remember the emergency management coordinator in Beaumont called me and said, ‘If it wasn’t for H-E-B, we wouldn’t have water in the city of Beaumont for Friday.’ I think that’s pretty darn special, and a reflection of everything H-E-B does, and the spirit of H-E-B.