H-E-B helps neighbors in need

Jan. 1, 2007
With supermarkets spread out along the Texas Gulf Coast, H-E-B folks know what to do when a major storm paints a bull's-eye on their coastline. They've

With supermarkets spread out along the Texas Gulf Coast, H-E-B folks know what to do when a major storm paints a bull's-eye on their coastline. They've been following well-defined evacuation procedures and storm preparation rules for years.

They also know the importance of getting their stores up and running as soon as possible after a storm passes through so that customers have access to grocery items. The 2005 hurricane season was no exception.

Three weeks after Hurricane Rita had pummeled South East Texas, the H-E-B store in Beaumont had lines of customers standing outside the store every day waiting to get inside. Utility companies in the Golden Triangle area already had restored services to most of their customers. The H-E-B store was fully stocked with grocery items. So why the crowd of people?

“Our store was overrun with customers who needed to cash a check, get money from a Western Union transaction, or pharmaceutical services,” says Justen Noakes, H-E-B emergency preparedness coordinator. “Looking at all of those people lined up outside the store, I started thinking there had to be a better way to get the community back to some level of normalcy. If we had some type of mobile unit that could be set up in the parking lot, this would help us help the community much faster.”

Noakes returned to the San Antonio corporate office with his idea of a disaster-relief unit. If one of the H-E-B stores is damaged by a storm, the unit could be deployed on site within hours, offering such services as a pharmacy, ATM, and Western Union.

The project was approved in February 2006. Trailer construction was completed in September. The unit was deployed from San Antonio to Corpus Christi in an emergency drill in October using about 20 H-E-B employees who volunteered to become part of a specialized sub-set of the company's emergency preparedness division.

H-E-B architects and designers took the plan to Clegg Industries in Victoria, Texas — a company with a reputation for pushing the engineering and manufacturing envelope with one-of-a-kind trailers and vehicles. As part of their design, Clegg started with a 57-foot trailer taken out of H-E-B's fleet.

The final product was a $350,000 trailer featuring a generator system, security cameras, exterior flood lights, interior lighting with office space, custom awning, custom-built under-storage for the awning and other supplies, five clerk positions, a satellite system, and custom-built aluminum stairs.

About 15 people can work inside the 57-foot trailer that functions as a cash office, business center, and pharmacy. The trailer is stocked with the top 800 pharmaceutical drugs needed by H-E-B customers along the Gulf Coast. The business office is equipped with an ATM, and customers can cash checks, purchase money orders, gift cards, and receive cash through Western Union transactions.

“It was fairly routine for us, except that we were working with new materials — especially bulletproof liner, “ says John Clegg, the company's co-founder and vice president of sales. “It looks like a piece of paneling. All the transaction drawers and windows are bulletproof. The biggest challenge was creating the areas so the staff can work comfortably in a confined space. And we managed to squeeze in a restroom and galley.”

The full complement of disaster response equipment includes several other trailers that were not built by Clegg. All of the equipment is kept at H-E-B's new fleet maintenance facility in San Antonio. Five additional units include a 57-foot trailer used as a bunk house with mattresses and linens that can sleep up to 24 people. Another trailer used as the bath house has segregated showers and toilets for men and women with 1,000-gallon and 850-gallon tanks, respectively for gray and drinking water.

“It's the most though-out, well-prepared disaster-relief package I've ever seen,” Clegg says. “They have their own shower unit, and they turned a big 18-wheeler into a dorm for the staff. They have an 8,000-gallon water tanker, 8,000-gallon diesel tanker to keep the generators refueled, and a mobile kitchen.

“There's a huge tent along with 50 folding chairs, so people can get out of the weather. The whole area around the trailer is a WiFi zone because the trailer has two high-powered broadband satellite dishes. I'm really impressed with the way H-E-B paid attention to detail. They'll be ready.”

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