Magazine

Dispatch: When A Local Wal-Mart Is A Lifeline


When a hungry man threatened to get his gun if Wal-Mart didn't open its doors on Aug. 30, the day after Hurricane Katrina smashed through town, store manager Ray Mathews knew he had trouble. The storm had shattered skylights and flooded his Wal-Mart Supercenter in Columbia, Miss., 100 miles north of New Orleans. Food was spoiling, the power was out, and many of his 400 employees were stranded. But against all odds, Mathews, an Air Force veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, and his staff were able to get the store reopened in just four days. The story of how they pulled off that feat is a microcosm of heroic efforts all across the Gulf States as citizens toil to rebuild.

TUESDAY, AUG. 30-WEDNESDAY, AUG. 31

For Mathews, 57, the immediate challenge in the first two days after the storm is to keep the ire of desperate customers from turning into violence as he works to reopen the store. Thanks to a small generator, the gas pumps are working. But martial law is declared in the town, in part because of knife and fistfights in the supercenter's parking lot as frustrated customers line up for what seems like a mile to fill their tanks at Wal-Mart, the lone fuel outpost for 30 miles.

Columbia is devastated. The recently refurbished downtown is in tatters. Prisoners from the local jail, dressed in black-and-white striped uniforms, haul away debris, under guard. On side streets hundreds of shredded trees have clipped power lines and damaged roofs. "It looked like a bomb went off," Mathews says. Including Columbia's Wal-Mart, 126 of the big-box stores in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama were knocked off line in the wake of the hurricane.

Mathews' military training starts to pay off right away. He places an order for trailers of water, canned meats, juices -- and a giant Caterpillar generator. Repairmen put temporary plastic shields on the store's broken skylights. Store employees stumble back to work. "We had no idea about anything until we came in," says Willie Nell Binkley, the housewares-department manager, who tracks down her missing daughter using a store phone.

For the 6,500 people of Columbia, a quiet place where annual incomes average around $20,000, Wal-Mart will become a lifeline.

THURSDAY SEPT. 1-FRIDAY SEPT. 2

Employees stay busy clearing out spoiled meat and vegetables from the back room, mopping floors, and checking inventory. In the parking lot, the staff room, and the grocery aisles, Mathews barks near-constant orders into his walkie-talkie and listens for relief updates on a police radio given to him by the city. "It's been a bit of chaos," says Mathews, a 19-year veteran of Wal-Mart who is known to workers and customers alike as "Mr. Ray."

When the Caterpillar generator -- a machine the size of a house that sucks up 100 gallons of fuel an hour -- arrives, electricians hotwire the store to hook it up. Water arrives, too, and in the middle of the night staffers pile cases of it -- priced at $1.47 for two gallons -- in the aisles. Mathews puts up a sign in the window: "We will open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Only 20 customers in at a time." Eager shoppers line up 100 deep at 7 a.m. on Sept. 2. One, Tammy Alexander, trekked 40 miles north from Angie, La., where there's no water, ice, electricity, or gas. A Wal-Mart in Bogalusa, La., nearer to her home, is still closed. "We ain't got nuthin'," she says.

SATURDAY SEPT. 3-WEDNESDAY SEPT. 7

Tales of loss continue to unfold. On Sept. 3 gasoline sales are still restricted to employees, soldiers, and hospital workers. A lone taxicab stands out from the crowd, driven by Harry Smith and filled with his two daughters, their boyfriends, and a puppy. They fled Jefferson Parish, west of New Orleans, the day before the storm, and were headed to a relative's home in Montgomery, Ala., about 300 miles away. They're about out of gas. "You don't know how hard it is," says Smith, crying. With a pained look, Mathews waves them through to the pumps.

In other ways, a semblance of calm returns to the store. Over the weekend shipments flow in more regularly. On Tuesday night, the store receives generators, coolers, and lantern lights -- necessities in an area that is still largely without power. Tap water is back in spots, though. "They could get a sponge bath, then come to work," says Mathews of employees who start to trickle in. He has enough staff now to man cash registers in the sporting goods and electronics departments, critical posts because those products are desirable to thieves. And on Sept. 5 the mayor of Columbia lets Mathews start selling beer again -- welcome news to overworked repairmen and tree-cutters.

Ray Mathews is now keeping his store open from 8.a.m. to 9 p.m. He hopes to have his 188,000-square-foot Wal-Mart back to its all-night operations by Sept. 10. But frozen food, meat, and deli products are still in short supply. There's much more to worry about: 67 employees of the Columbia store still haven't been heard from. There are fears that some of them may not have survived the storm.

By Brian Grow in Columbia, Miss.


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