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Since its inception, the supermarket has served as an anchor for local communities faced with natural disasters. At the first word of dangerous weather approaching, shoppers typically flood their local grocery stores in search of survival staples ranging from flashlights and batteries to canned food and bottled water. And in the wake of brutal storms, the familiar faces, still-dependable service, and much-needed replenishment of supplies offered by supermarkets lend a sense of normalcy to a disruptive and chaotic situation.
Last year's deadly Hurricane Ivan not only thrust Foster's Food Fair Supermarkets, an IGA member on the western Caribbean island of Grand Cayman, into the teeth of the storm, but also placed the retailer at the nexus of the market's recovery.
On Sept. 12, 2004, the Category Four hurricane hit 20-mile-long, three-mile-wide Grand Cayman, which is the largest of three islands that make up the British territory of Cayman Islands. Just a few days later, Foster's stepped up to the plate and volunteered to hand out rationed supplies to hundreds of victims. In the weeks that followed, Foster's had two of the only supermarkets up and running.
It was a trying time for Foster's and its stores. Thousands of residents were left without homes, and sporadic power outages prevailed for months. All told, Grand Cayman suffered an estimated U.S. $3 billion worth of damage.
"Living through the storm was pretty terrifying," recalls Woody Foster, owner of the three IGA supermarkets and pharmacies on Grand Cayman. He and his family were at Foster's largest store, in Cayman's Airport Center, when the hurricane started pummeling the island with winds of more than 135 miles per hour.
Weather officials had predicted that the storm, which had already made its mark on several Caribbean countries, would hit Grand Cayman's less populated neighboring islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
Indeed, the last time Grand Cayman had suffered a direct hit from a hurricane was in 1932. But as several storms had already ransacked the Florida coast and surrounding areas in the midst of hurricane season, Foster's IGA was up to date with regard to disaster preparedness.
"Every year we go through a hurricane preparedness list that we've developed over the years," explains Foster. "Last year we had gotten prepared as usual, although we weren't expecting Hurricane Ivan to hit here."
That's why on Sept. 11, Foster was at the Airport Center supermarket, along with five members of his family, three family dogs, and a security guard who was on duty. "We closed the store, but were going to ride out the storm and open in the morning."
As the storm approached full force on Sept. 12, however, they realized that Ivan was going to land a direct hit. It turned out to be good fortune that Foster and his family were at the store, because they were able to react immediately. "We have 13 large rollup doors that aren't hurricane-proof. We were able to barricade them," he explains.
But even with such preparation, Foster looked on in horror as the roof began to cave in and salt water sprayed throughout the store, destroying refrigerated cases, cash registers, computers, and shelving. What's more, the store's backup generator flooded. "The large amount of storm surge created an enormous amount of damage. The wind and rain alone wouldn't have done that much damage," he notes. Going forward, the store will purchase an excess capacity of fuel, and store it under the existing tank to lift the tank further off the ground.
Once the storm subsided, Foster began to assess the damage to the store's 23,000 square feet of selling space. While the roof would have to be replaced—it had more than 200 puncture wounds—many of the products on the shelves were still intact.
Serendipitously Foster had a ready-made temporary store in the wings, thanks to 18,000 square feet of vacant space attached to the store, which had formerly served as a warehouse. "We had cleared it out in May with the intentions of adding a club-type format," he explains.
In all, Foster's three stores, which were insured, suffered just over CI $12 million, or U.S. $14.5 million, worth of damage.
"We had three feet of saltwater in all three stores. At our store in the Strand, there was sewage in the store because a nearby government sewage plant was knocked out. That store had to be temporarily condemned." As a result the 32,500-square-foot Strand store wasn't reopened until March of this year.
"Our insurance company was very good to us," adds Foster. "We got the majority back. What we didn't get back, we had to take a hit on."
A lot of help from friends
"We received tremendous support after the hurricane," recalls Foster. "Anything that had to be done got done. Our suppliers here and overseas really pitched in." Bridgeton, Mo.-based Hussmann Corp., for example, put Foster's stores at the top of its customer list, and was thus able to get new equipment for the Airport Center store within five weeks of the hurricane.
Meanwhile the Cayman government helped out by clearing goods off docks and getting them to the stores. "Shipping agents were being inundated with requests to get cleared through customs. Food stores were given a priority," says Foster.
Perhaps the most meaningful contribution, however, came from Foster's own work force. "We had 170 of our 360 employees show up for work the next day. They told stories of having nothing left, but still showed up to work."
There was certainly plenty of work to be done, despite the fact that the store was temporarily closed. The hurricane doors were pried open with a forklift. Food was carefully inspected, and any perishable items that were still edible were donated to churches, shelters, and the National Hurricane Committee. Some perishable products were saved to feed the employees.
Associates bagged up care packages to hand out to customers. For two days, local residents were given two bags of staple grocery items and two gallons of water. Diapers and baby food were also available for parents.
"We made the decision to hand out free merchandise on our own," explains Foster. "After we got our store cleaned up enough to work in it, we made up the packages and handed them out at no cost to our customers or the government.
"The lines were unbelievable," he recounts. "People were waiting outside in the hot sun for hours." In the beginning, there were also minor incidents of looting, but police showed up to serve as a deterrent.
By Friday, just five days after the hurricane hit, Foster's was able to open the temporary supermarket, which initially took up just 5,000 square feet, but eventually expanded to include the space's full 18,000 square feet. For the temporary unit, they lined up pallets in rows and offered four checkstands. "It was very primitive," he recalls.
Despite its bare-bones design, however, the store was a welcome sight for Foster's faithful clientele. "Customers told us they were so glad we were open so soon after the storm. It gave them a ray of hope, a sense of normalcy."
The makeshift store would end up serving customers until Dec. 14, at which time a brand-new Airport Center store opened its doors. "In a 10-week period we rebuilt the store, with new ceiling tiles, walls, refrigerated units, cash registers, and shelving. The only original part of the store was the concrete floor," notes Foster. Additionally, the retailer had to resurface the parking lot and plant new trees.
"The suppliers that came to visit us were amazed by the community spirit everyone showed -- there was no arguing," says Foster. (About 50 percent of Foster's supplies are imported from the United States.)
Its third store, a much smaller 9,000-square-foot unit in the Republix shopping center, received less extensive damage externally, but was flooded by three feet of seawater. "It destroyed all our equipment inside the store. The flooding also ruined our stand-by generator and all our compressors for the refrigeration and air conditioning. Everything had to be replaced," he notes. "We opened the store on the weekend after the storm, but with no refrigeration, air conditioning, and rusted shelving. We officially 'reopened' it with the Strand store on March 3 with all new equipment."
In hindsight, Foster sees a positive dividend from the hurricane. "The way we look at it, we now have three new stores," he says.
Chances are that Grand Cayman won't suffer a similar fate during this year's hurricane season, although all signs indicate it will be another above-normal hurricane season in the Atlantic. In any event, this time around Foster and his crew will take a few new precautions, based on lessons taught by Ivan.
"We've raised the floor in our Airport store by three inches. We can deal with minimal flooding, but that will help. We've also shored up the back doors. We'll also try to move all our vehicles to high ground, as everyone else will be doing," he says.
Beyond those precautions, however, Foster can at least rest assured that he has a great support system on this enduring tropical island.