Hometown Heroes

For two solid days, Hurricane Harvey had been dumping gallons over Houston. Buildings, streets and bridges were flooding, and businesses all over the city had shuttered. No one would have blamed Tony Klaus for closing the Kingwood area H-E-B store he’d run since its grand opening just 10 months before. But on August 29, he and a skeleton staff of 30 volunteer employees did what they could to help several hundred shoppers desperate to stock up for their extended stays at home.

By 2 p.m., the store’s retention pond had maxed out and water in parts of the parking lot had risen to a foot and a half—creeping up to the curb just outside the door. For the safety of staff and patrons, Klaus finally closed shop and locked the doors, not knowing what he’d find when he reopened them once the rains went away. “We took care of the customers as best we could, as long as we could,” he says.

Other H-E-B stores in Harvey-stricken areas of Texas also stayed open as long as they could—during what some analysts have called the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history. But despite being forced to close the stores, the grocery chain didn’t stop helping Texans. As soon as the roads cleared, H-E-B sent out its custom mobile kitchens to provide food and other supplies to the hardest-hit areas. Before the government or any other relief organization arrived, H-E-B was there with hot meals, water, prescription medications and other necessities to offer victims in hurricane-ravaged towns including Victoria, Rockport, Houston, Beaumont—and back to Rockport a second time. The effort helped hundreds of lives and won the company nationwide praise, but it wasn’t H-E-B’s first rodeo. In a sense, the company has been preparing for a disaster on the scale of Harvey for years.

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Disaster Development

One of the things Justen Noakes has learned since becoming H-E-B’s director of emergency preparedness in 2008 is to think the worst of any potential storm. When everyone assumed Harvey would be a tropical storm a week before landfall, Noakes treated it like a Category 1 hurricane. That gave him a decent head start when Harvey ballooned into a Category 4 within 36 hours. He warned the stores at risk, planned where to send generators for power outages and pulled top-level H-E-B planners and directors into a hurricane task force. “I always tell them their role is to do what they do every day, except on a hyperactive schedule,” says Noakes. “If you’re the ice person during the day, you’re now the ice person charged with buying a lot more ice and dealing with a different set of logistical issues.”

Noakes’ job initially focused on protecting the flow of products to stores during a disaster. But after Hurricane Rita in 2005, he and the company realized they could do more to defend the stores themselves. With each successive disaster, he and H-E-B learned how to keep stores open longer, and by extension, feed more people. “The community we serve wasn’t demanding that we stay open longer; it was more of an onus we put on ourselves,” says Noakes. “We’ve tried to raise the bar with every disaster, an evolution of our capability to respond.”

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H-E-B’s CEO, Charles Butt and Director of Emergency Preparedness for H-E-B, Justen Noakes.

Rolling Relief

A big part of that evolution has been the company’s fleet of aforementioned mobile kitchens. H-E-B originally created these kitchenized semi-trucks in the late 1980s for its free Feast of Sharing holiday dinners. It turned out the vehicles’ abilities to serve thousands of meals an hour made them invaluable for feeding people affected by the Guadalupe floods in the early 1990s and the disasters that followed. The unit has gotten so fast and efficient over the years that it was able to roll into Victoria a mere 24 hours after Harvey had passed. From 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day, the mobile kitchen team of 11 cooked for thousands of first responders and locals, using beds, bathrooms and showers they brought along with them to avoid draining local resources. Daniel Flores, head of the Mobile Kitchens and Disaster Relief Units, saw the destruction in Victoria firsthand as he worked alongside his crew. “It was heartbreaking,” he says. “A lot of folks had stayed and now they were trying to get their lives back together. But the unity you saw was amazing. One guy had driven up from Brownsville to give out supplies. I wished I could get that guy on my team.”

Once electricity and water came back on in Victoria and other relief services rolled in, it was time to move on. This has become another of Noakes’ standard operating procedures: Get in first, provide immediate help, and when the situation is secure, move on to the next hot spot where FEMA needs them next. “We’re the early strike force that comes in to provide immediate relief,” says Noakes. “We go in quickly to provide meals to first responders and communities until an organization equipped to feed people for longer comes in.”

All told, H-E-B served 50,000 hot meals, delivered 75 truckloads of water and 21 truckloads of ice—plus 4,000 bags of cat and dog food. When the worst of the crisis was over, the company continued feeding cleanup volunteers in places like Aransas Pass. It also pitched in for the string of disasters that followed Harvey outside of Texas, bringing 10 truckloads of food and water to Publix in Florida after Hurricane Irma, nine pallets of food to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and more than 350 tons of food and water to Mexico after the earthquakes there. 

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One of the H-E-B Disaster Response Teams.

Rising from the Wreckage

It’s easy to forget that H-E-B is itself a Harvey victim, with three locations left in ruins. The company has salvaged two of those stores, including the Kingwood location, which Klaus, at first, thought might never reopen. When he reentered the building three days after he locked the doors, he found it completely trashed by the six feet of water that had filled it. Whole refrigerator cases had flipped over, and massive food bins had swum to the other side of the store. Though the ceiling, walls and floor remained intact, the rest of the 106,000-square-foot facility would have to be gutted and rebuilt from scratch. “I expected things to be bad, but not that bad,” says Klaus.

H-E-B didn’t abandon the building, though, and neither did it abandon the more than 360 people who worked there. The company found jobs at nearby H-E-B stores for 300 employees and gave leaves of absence to 60 others who needed time off to rebuild their lives. Most every Kingwood employee was set to come back when the store slated its second grand opening for mid-January. “Everyone’s looking forward to coming back to Kingwood,” says Klaus. “It’s been challenging, frustrating, hopeful—a little of everything. But it’s been pretty powerful what’s been accomplished.”

By Steve Wilson • Photography courtesy of H-E-B

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