Nine years ago,
Hurricane Katrina struck the New Orleans East community, leaving a path of
devastation in its wake. Our Walmart store was just one of the many buildings
After the storm, we promised to reopen our doors in the
area, and as of June 11, I’m proud to be able to say that we’ve followed
For many, Walmart
is a staple of everyday routine: grabbing groceries, crossing items off a
shopping list. But for New Orleanians, this new supercenter is a symbol of
recovery and opportunity. It will bring much-needed retail to the particularly
hard-hit New Orleans East and will act as a catalyst for growth in the area.
When we opened the hiring center for this Walmart, more than
3,600 applications were submitted. By investing in this new store, Walmart has
brought more than 400 new jobs to the area, and 65% of the store’s associates are residents of New Orleans East.
Twenty-five of the associates
employed at this new store worked in the East prior to Hurricane Katrina and
are finally returning to work in their community, nearly a decade after their
lives were changed forever.
Looking at the crowd gathered to celebrate the
reopening a few weeks ago, I was reminded of a simple fact about New Orleanians:
Whatever comes their way, they get back up.
We have worked hard to rebuild this store for our
customers, and we are proud to once again be a part of this strong, vibrant
During Hurricane Katrina, there were many others she believes are
equally deserving of that title. Her fellow medical staff at New Orleans
Memorial Medical Center who worked while separated from their families. Her
best friend, Monique, who took Medea’s ailing mother to evacuate on her own.
Also, the strangers she remembers driving their personal boats to pick up
patients and staff from the hospital and navigate them to dry land.
But as a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, Medea helped wrap
up 16 babies and move them to shelter through a hole in the wall that led to a
truck bed. The truck bed was to take them to a helicopter and then, safety, but
once Medea passed each infant through the wall, she had no idea if outside realities
would let that happen.
Today, she knows that nearly all of those babies somehow survived on
the way to their destination, Baton Rouge Women’s Hospital. While one of them
did pass away, she doesn’t know how or when, because that hospital has since
closed. She recently got a Facebook message from one of the mothers who wanted
to thank her for what she did that day.
“It was surreal to know how much I impacted her life and that she
remembered me,” Medea said. “Just knowing that these kids are now 10 years old
lets me go on.”
When Medea transported those infants that day, she says she was simply
doing her job. Once the job was complete, she turned her full attention toward
her mother, whom she sent with her best friend to get on a boat to safety. She
had to pack up her mother’s medicine, waterproof her medical records and dosage
instructions and staple them to the inside of her mother’s clothes so they
didn’t get lost. She then sent her two loved ones off to stay with a college
roommate whom she believed in her heart would take them in, but she didn’t know
for sure. It was the second big moment that day where she had to simply act.
Thankfully, two days later – after Medea herself had to leave the
hospital not knowing her next resting place – she found out that her mother
was, in fact, alive.
While many things have changed for Medea since then, like a new job and
also a new husband, she has returned home to New Orleans and works with
pediatric patients once again, this time doing HIV research.
“I’m in a totally different place than I was before Katrina,” she said.
“I’ve found peace and joy in this recovery.”
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005, David Simmons’ first thought wasn’t the minor damage to his home in Mississippi. It was calling the Walmart dispatch station to see how he could help through his job as a truck driver.
He was sure there was plenty of emergency freight that had to be delivered, but that wasn’t a request he was met with on the other end of the line. The operator instead asked how his family fared in the storm, and told him to stay home and take care of his property as there were drivers coming from all over to assist with the recovery.
Later, he did get a chance to help – hauling donated merchandise for
the Salvation Army – and says that it remains to this day one of the most
fulfilling moments of his driving career.
“From food, clothing and water to even roofing materials, it was all
needed and appreciated by the residents of the Gulf Coast,” David said.
Rickey Oliver, too, remembers Katrina as a moment he was proud to work
for Walmart. One of the drivers who participated in a convoy of trucks that
waited to enter one of the most heavily damaged areas of New Orleans, Rickey
thought for a moment that the abandoned-looking area around him was actually
“To my amazement, like in the movie Field
of Dreams they came, walking in from every street, every corner, out of
buildings I thought for sure no one would be in. All hungry and thirsty and
desperate for help, and we … were the help,” Rickey said. “I don’t think a
person can truly express the feeling or the honor one receives in doing this
kind of thing.”
Gary Mars, another Walmart driver who was part of that same convoy,
feels the same way. Carrying water, generators, and food – plus ice, important
during hot August weather in Louisiana – was a critical role to fill.
“I remember the sense of pride I felt as we
convoyed into New Orleans and surrounding cities, as nearly every vehicle we
met was waving at us as we passed, and several had makeshift signs saying, ‘Thank
you, Walmart,’” Gary said. “I was relatively new to Walmart, but I knew at that
point that this was a place to permanently call home. It’s amazing to me just
how quick lives can change, just in a moment. It’s very humbling.”
Pass Christian, Mississippi, is a small town of only a few thousand people, but it has always been a huge part of Kim Claycomb’s life. It’s where she grew up and went to high school, and later built a career at the local Walmart.
In the last few days of August 2005, Kim’s community was forever changed as Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Kim’s home was damaged, not destroyed, but her workplace – the supercenter she and her colleagues affectionately named “The Store by the Shore,” was ruined beyond repair.
After the storm hit, many Walmart associates went to work at other stores. Several in the Pass Christian area headed to another nearby small community, Waveland, to serve local residents in a makeshift store they created inside a tent in the parking lot.
Today, Kim works at a Neighborhood Market in Gulfport, but as her store in Pass Christian was being reconstructed, she drove by every day and took photos of its progress. When the building was complete, she recalled the mayor talking excitedly about the grand opening on the local news.
“I never thought a Walmart would have that big of an impact, but it did,” Kim said. “Seeing customers who remembered us from before … those people are like family to me. Coming back was a big deal.”
The line at the Slidell, Louisiana, Sam’s Club gas station stretched as far as Mike Turner’s eyes could see. As he walked around the corner of the cashier’s post, a state trooper’s patrol vehicle emerged from the dusty procession.
Demand for fuel – on top of
food, water and other necessities – was high in those days after Hurricane
Katrina, and any time Mike, then a regional general manager at Sam’s Club, and
his colleagues saw a public official, they made a point to ask how they could
“In his car, he had water, diapers, formula, socks. I stopped and
talked to him,” Mike recalled. “‘Hey, you’ve been working hard,’ I said. He
replied, ‘You’re about to see a state trooper cry.’"
The officer had been on duty for two days straight, he said, and he’d
just gotten approved for a two-hour break from his post. He’d headed to Sam’s
Club for essentials to take to his wife and infant child, who didn’t evacuate
before the storm because his job required him to stay in the area. With
electricity out and hurricane damage all around, the officer said he was
grateful for any glimpse of normalcy.
Mike was just doing his job that day, working a six-week stint
overseeing Sam’s Clubs in Katrina-affected areas of the Gulf. While he and his
colleagues did many things they’d never had to before – sleeping on Sam’s Club
floors and figuring out how to serve customers without cash registers,
refrigeration and lighting – 10 years
later, it’s moments like those with the trooper that stick in his mind.
He also remembers the time as one where he and many other associates
had to make quick but important decisions based more on gut and conscience than
normal policy and procedures.
“We created a
sense of calm for members and associates. … We didn’t open up every club the
day after the storm, but when we did get them open, we opened for everyone.
There was no membership fee. We just did whatever we had to do, whether it was
FEMA needing a pallet of water or a church with 700 people.”
‘I Hope I Don’t Get Fired’
Once a police officer and firefighter, in 2005, Jason Jackson put those
skills to work as director of emergency management at Walmart, where he led the
company’s Emergency Operations Center: a hub at the corporate office where
leadership coordinates efforts to help affected associates; restore store, club
and DC operations; and support communities.
While Jason’s role put him formally in charge of Walmart’s response to
one of the country’s biggest disasters, he insists that the real heroes during
Katrina were the thousands of associates who acted with courage and compassion.
Some of those stories are lesser known – such as a cashier contributing a few
dollars to the baskets of families who needed it, or Walmart emergency
responders giving their own food away to families who were hungry – and others,
such as truck drivers who drove through difficult conditions and waited for
hours on the highway to bring relief supplies into devastated communities, are
ingrained in company culture.
associates were empowered to help,” he said, but recalled one former co-manager in Waveland, Mississippi specifically who became a “poster
child” because of her inspiring actions. After riding out the storm with her
family at home, she traveled to her store that was heavily damaged. Upon seeing so many people in the community in need, she drove a front end loader through the building to seek out salvageable merchandise and later gave away what she could, such as food, water, shoes and clothes.
About a day and a half after Katrina’s landfall, Dale Snowden, director
of disaster response and recovery, arrived in Waveland to assess the damage. He
had a satellite phone, and called the Emergency Operations Center to report
“’Hey, the co-manager is here, she wants to talk to you,’” Jason
recalls Dale saying. “She was happy and crying at the same time. ‘I hope I
don’t get fired’ were the first words out of her mouth. After reassuring her,
she was quick to let us know what her community needed. In fact, it became the
location for our first tent store.”
A tent store is set up in a parking lot of a Walmart that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina devastated the inside of a Waveland Walmart store
A Walmart in Waveland was devistated by Hurricane Katrina
Inside of a Waveland Walmart after Hurricane Katrina
Dale, who worked as a builder and insurance adjustor earlier in his
career, worked on the ground in the Gulf for an entire month that year coordinating
repairs and reporting back on the status of Walmart locations. Since then he’s
done the same during the aftermath of many other natural and mand-made disasters,
from fires and tornados in the U.S. to an earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
While philanthropy is a big part of Walmart’s response to any disaster,
he said, he believes getting local stores back up and running is equally
important, and not just for the obvious – restoring access to the things that
“It’s not just about donating water or ringing the registers,” Dale
said, “it’s about returning to people a sense of normalcy and that things are
going to be OK. People think, ‘Hey, that’s my Walmart.’ I didn’t set out to be
a recovery expert, but it’s very rewarding being able to fulfill people’s needs
and help them when they need it most.”
Rebuilding in Biloxi
Beth Harrell, a department manager at a Walmart supercenter in Biloxi,
Mississippi, remembers a similar response from the community when her store
opened three weeks after Katrina.
“We constantly heard, ‘We’re so glad to see you all are still here!’”
Beth, too, was glad to return to work after her family made it through
the storm safely. When the storm was at its strongest, she’d evacuated to
McComb, Mississippi, with her oldest son and his girlfriend, while her husband
stayed home to guard the house. Even in McComb, about 130 miles northwest of
Biloxi, Beth lost power and heard trees snapping, leaving her thinking the
worst for her husband, who was at their house a block from the beach.
Phone service was out, too, so she didn’t hear from him for more than a
week. When she finally did, he had quite the harrowing story.
“He saw it coming up under the door and thought
to go get towels, but when he stepped away, the force of the water bent the
door up like it was rubber. The water rushed in, and everything floated out.”
The couple had two dogs, a Labrador and a terrier. With the inside of
the house now flooded with more than 4 feet of water, her husband swam out of
the house with the smaller dog but had to go back and rescue the Lab.
Later, Beth and her husband would spend a year living in a FEMA trailer
in their front yard, rebuilding their home in their spare time. While her
husband passed away a few years ago, she still works at the same Walmart store
as a department manager in apparel, and can recall more than a few blessings
that came out of such a horrific storm.
“Our community became stronger. Everybody just jumped in and started
helping each other,” Beth said. “We didn’t just sit back and go, ‘Oh, woe is
me.’ I got to know a lot of my neighbors a lot better. Thank God nobody I knew
lost their lives.”
From Red Cross to Retail
Lee Siler didn’t work for Walmart in 2005, but as then-director of the
Northwest Arkansas chapter of the American Red Cross, he’d built relationships
with the Walmart emergency management team and worked in the Emergency
Operations Center when Katrina hit. It was an arrangement that allowed the two
entities to communicate faster and get relief to affected areas much more
quickly, he said.
Among all the memories he has of that intense period, joining one
particular meeting following the storm’s landfall is one that left an
impression on him.
“There was a long table, and Lee Scott [former Walmart CEO] was there.
They spent an hour and 15 minutes talking about how they were going to take
care of their people, get checks to them, make sure they had jobs, how to get
them safe and sound,” he said. “Not once during that whole time did they talk
about stores being destroyed or impact to operations, until the very last 15
minutes. That told me right then and there that Walmart was serious when they
say that our associates come first. In that meeting I saw that come to life.
Senior leadership got out of the way and gave people the power to take care of
what needed to be done.”
The next year, when Walmart called and offered him a job leading
community grant programs and disaster relief and resiliency, he knew it was a
good fit. Now, he provides guidance to store and facility managers on disaster
response and works with nonprofit organizations through the Walmart Foundation to
distribute grant money that helps continue community recovery efforts.
Disaster recovery became Lee’s career field indirectly after working at
a small town chamber of commerce where he uncovered a passion for working with
volunteers, which led him a later position with the Red Cross.
“These people are doing it because they want to, not because they get paid for
it. You get the right volunteer in the right spot, and they can move
Lee has seen that happen time and time again, he said, especially at
the Walmart Associate Support Call Center, which is manned by volunteers.
“This isn’t their job, and it’s open until 9 or 10 at night. They’re
signing up to help associates who are having the worst day of their entire
life. Their homes may be destroyed, yet the associates want to step up and help.”
Today, Lee gets to work with volunteers on a global scale at Walmart,
where he works to use the lessons learned from Katrina to continually improve
the company’s disaster response moving forward.
“The positive impact that we can have on our customers, associates and
communities around the globe is what keeps me here,” he said. “Nowhere else
would I have the opportunity to do what I do.”