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Survivors of Hurricane Katrina have blasted government officials for their slow response to the disaster, but in some communities along the Gulf Coast, victims are praising an unexpected savior, Wal-Mart. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
After Katrina flooded the city of Kenner, Louisiana, the first relief did not come from state or federal officials. It came from the nation's biggest company. Several days after the storm passed, Wal-Mart sent in trucks loaded with water, ice and canned goods to help thousands of stranded residents. Mayor Phil Capitano says the company set an example for the federal government.
Mayor PHIL CAPITANO (Kenner, Louisiana): FEMA couldn't get here. Red Cross couldn't get here. Homeland Security couldn't get here. The only one who could get here was the Wal-Mart corporation. We were--we are extremely appreciative and extremely grateful for them, and we'd certainly suggest that maybe some of those other folks go over and meet with the Wal-Mart people so that they can learn distribution and logistics.
LANGFITT: Wal-Mart says it trucked tons of supplies into at least a dozen communities along the Gulf Coast in the first days after Katrina. Officials in Louisiana's hard-hit Jefferson Parish say they received more than 100 trailer loads. Wal-Mart says it was able to move fast because of early planning and its vast supply network. Jason Jackson runs Wal-Mart's emergency operation center. He says the company began preparing for hurricane season three months ago.
Mr. JASON JACKSON (Wal-Mart, Emergency Operation Center): We had already, for instance, staged over 160 truckloads or trailer loads of water in a number of different distribution centers throughout Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas because we knew that they would be needed. And when I say that, I mean the trailer is loaded and the truck just has to back up to the trailer and take off.
LANGFITT: Once the storm passed, Wal-Mart hauled those goods hundreds of miles across interstates to the damaged areas. As materials ran short, the company relied on the supply network that has helped make it such a tough business competitor. Again, Jason Jackson.
Mr. JACKSON: We were able to pull in quantities from other areas from around the country, maybe as far away as Colorado or New York. For a little bit we were looking at the Wal-Mart Canada distribution for things like cots.
LANGFITT: The company's success in providing relief is giving its battered image a boost. Wal-Mart's many critics accuse it of everything from exploiting workers to crushing local businesses. But in Kenner, survivors were just happy the company showed up.
Ms. TINA DECODY(ph) (Hurricane Survivor): God bless Wal-Mart and Sam's.
LANGFITT: That's Tina Decody. She's referring to Sam's Club, Wal-Mart's discount warehouse chain. Decody rode out the storm in her one-bedroom apartment with 10 neighbors. They had a few days' worth of food left when the Wal-Mart trucks arrived in Kenner. Decody describes the scene at the distribution center.
Ms. DECODY: The 18-wheelers backed up. They unloaded them. They had the Kenner police and the officials that work for the city of Kenner working behind these tables and as you go up they gave you a bag or a box. For the first day we got two gallons of water and one bag of ice per person. Now they're giving us three gallons and one bag of ice.
LANGFITT: The company's eager to publicize its work with hurricane victims. Earlier this week it sent cameras into Kenner to videotape distribution efforts. Wal-Mart plans to post that footage for journalists on a company Web site. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.
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