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Big-box stores like Walmart and Home Depot have been busy preparing for Hurricane Irene for nearly a week now. They've deployed hundreds of trucks carrying everything from plywood to Pop Tarts to stores in the path of the storm.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports these retailers have turned hurricane preparation into a science, one that government emergency agencies have started to embrace.

JON HAMILTON: It's been a busy week at Home Depot's Hurricane Command Center in Atlanta. About a hundred associates there are trying to anticipate how Irene will affect stores from the Carolinas to New York.

Russ Householder is the company's emergency response captain. He says at times like this the Command Center looks a lot like NASA Mission Control during a Shuttle launch.

Mr. RUSS HOUSEHOLDER (Emergency Response Captain, Home Depot): We've got all the key news agencies on the big screens up front. We're also monitoring our store sales so we can better be in tune to what's happening in our stores, and we're also connected, you know, live one-on-one, with D.M.s in the impacted areas.

HAMILTON: D.M.s are district managers. And Householder says, right now, they are focused on stocking a short list of items.

Mr. HOUSEHOLDER: Generators, chain saws, you know we're looking at water, tarps...

HAMILTON: Householder says it's all part of a process that began months ago, at the beginning of hurricane season.

Mr. HOUSEHOLDER: We take storm product, both pre and post-strike product, we stage those in containers and we have them in our distribution centers, really ready for a driver to pull up and pick up and take to our stores.

HAMILTON: The system got a stress test a few days ago when Irene struck Puerto Rico, causing widespread power outages. Householder says Home Depot stores simply switched to emergency generators.

Mr. HOUSEHOLDER: You know, all stores opened up the day after the storm came through. So we opened up on time and we were there waiting and ready for our customers.

HAMILTON: Walmart stores in Puerto Rico also re-opened quickly. Mark Cooper is the man in charge of Emergency Management at Walmart. But in 2005, he was an emergency worker from Los Angeles who was sent to New Orleans.

Mr. MARK COOPER (Emergency Management Director, Walmart): As a first responder during Katrina, obviously we were there a week after the levies broke and it was a Walmart, actually, that I went into to get supplies for myself once I arrived in Louisiana.

HAMILTON: It was one of the few stores still operating. Cooper says Walmart anticipates surges in demand by using a huge historical database of sales from each store as well as sophisticated predictive techniques. He says that system is helping them allocate things like batteries, read-to-eat foods, and cleaning supplies to areas bracing for Irene. He says Walmart also has the advantage of a staff meteorologist.

Mr. COOPER: When those forecasts come out it's great to have somebody in-house that can evaluate that information so that we can give real-time information to our associates, not only here at the headquarters, but out in the field.

HAMILTON: All of that helped Walmart emerge as a hero after Katrina. Steve Horwitz is an economist at St. Lawrence University in Canton New York who studied the company's response.

Mr. STEVE HORWITZ (Economist, St. Lawrence University): They know exactly what people want after a hurricane. And one of my favorite stories from Katrina is that the most popular food item after a major storm like this is strawberry Pop-Tarts.

HAMILTON: Walmart shoppers also stocked up on beer. Horwitz says Katrina showed that Walmart was willing to let its employees improvise when they encountered something no computer could predict.

Mr. HORWITZ: In Waveland, Mississippi they sort of pushed all this stuff into the parking lot and basically gave it away to the community. In other places they broke into their own pharmacy to get drugs for local hospitals after Katrina.

HAMILTON: Now federal agencies want to learn how to work with the private sector when responding to emergencies. And the state of Florida has actually hired Walmart's former emergency manager to run its Division of Emergency Management. His name is Bryan Koon.

Mr. BRYAN KOON (Director, State of Florida Division of Emergency Management): What I learned at Walmart helps me here, to be able to make sure that we are putting the private sector and specifically those retailers in the best possible position to be successful in a situation like this.

HAMILTION: Koon says if most people can get what they need from stores after a hurricane, agencies like his can focus on the less fortunate.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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