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How SC grocery stores are navigating hurricane season, ongoing coronavirus pandemic

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Shoppers at a Publix supermarket on Folly Road, James Island, stripped the shelves of water during the lead up to Hurricane Florence in 2018. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

Long lines, empty shelves, uncertainty — a familiar site at South Carolina grocery stores whenever a major hurricane bears down on the coast.

In a year dominated by the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic, one that also saw long-term shortages of critical items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning products, will a major storm threaten supply chains?

The short answer: No. 

Retail industry experts agree that while a hurricane can cause some short-term challenges, the Palmetto State is well versed in how to deal with them. 

"To a certain extent, the pandemic shutdown can be compared to a much longer and intense hurricane," said Joey Von Nessen, a research economist at the University of South Carolina. "But the analogy starts to break down because there are some differences."

The biggest of those differences is, during a hurricane or other natural disaster, there's typically an end date, Von Nessen said. 

Retail stores have a tried and true playbook they use to prepare for hurricane season, he said. They know how to prepare for the intense surge in demand for water, bread, milk, canned goods and other supplies shoppers typically make a run for during the lead up to a major storm. 

"Being in the Charleston area, they know there's a chance that'll happen in any given year," Von Nessen said. 

In what has already been an active hurricane season, the Charleston area already saw a close brush with Tropical Storm Isaias, which passed off the coast bringing wind and rain but little other impact. 

The storm, instead, brought its fury to the North Carolina-South Carolina border, where storm surge, rain and wind caused flooding, fires and some property damage. 

Hurricane Wire is a pop-up newsletter during hurricane season that delivers anyone who lives on the East Coast all the information they need to know as storms brew in the Atlantic and beyond.


As the season continues into fall, representatives from major South Carolina retailers say they're ready for whatever may come. 

Dana Robinson, a spokeswoman for Harris Teeter, said the grocery chain has worked quickly to mobilize resources and increase deliveries of items most in demand ahead of potential storms. 

"The nature of our business is to plan early, consistently communicate with our suppliers and make adjustments to meet or exceed our customers' expectations," said Maria Brous, a Publix spokeswoman. "With hurricane season upon us, we continue to diligently work with our suppliers to ensure we'll have the vital supplies needed to prepare early. Water production is in full-swing and inventory levels are returning to pre-pandemic state, with few exceptions."

The grocery industry is resilient, Brous said, adding that the chain urges customers to shop as they normally would and not to stockpile.

"We are seeing better conditions in most categories; however, paper and cleaning products have been slower to rebound," she said. "For this very reason, customers may see limits in place. In addition, limits will vary by store depending on high demand for certain items."

Publix has a team dedicated to hurricane preparedness, Brous said. The team monitors conditions before, during and after storms, and works with local government authorities on store closure and reopening times. 

Spokespeople for other retailers said their businesses go through similar planning. 

Kelly Powell, a spokeswoman for Food Lion, said the chain communicates daily with vendors and suppliers to find the "most efficient way possible" to ensure products stay stocked on store shelves. 

Rebecca Thompson, a spokeswoman for Walmart, said the chain is in "stronger, more stable condition," compared to earlier in the year when the coronavirus pandemic stretched supply chains to their breaking points. 

"We're better able to prepare stores in the path of storms," Thompson said. "In the case South Carolina, or any area we serve, is in the path of a hurricane, our merchandising, replenishment, supply chain and logistics teams work to ensure we have critical supplies and products in stores. We also monitor evacuation patterns and move product to where there is anticipated need before and after the storm."

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

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