Lowe's springs into action

Outside, it was a sunny late-summer afternoon. But inside a room at the Lowe's corporate campus in Mooresville, the shades were drawn and stormy weather had everyone's attention.

When natural disasters threaten, the company's two emergency command centers – one in Mooresville, which focuses on human resources and risk management, and the other in Wilkesboro, focusing on reconstructing stores and replenishing their stock – snap to action. Employees assist colleagues in stricken areas and work with vendors and distribution centers to direct supplies to stores that need them.

As the nation's second-largest home improvement retailer, Lowe's sells a host of products – generators, storm shutters, plywood, cleaning products, flooring – that people need to prepare for, weather and recover from severe storms.

And though the command centers open for certain floods, fires, earthquakes and other catastrophes, hurricane season is high season.

By Tuesday, the center at company headquarters in Mooresville had been open a little more than a week because of Tropical Storm Fay. It kept running to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav and prepare for storms Hanna and Ike, with employees keeping watch on about 120 stores on the Gulf Coast and the Eastern Seaboard.

On Monday, about 30 of Lowe's roughly 50 stores in coastal Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas were closed. By Tuesday, that number was down to 24, with more set to reopen promptly once evacuation orders were lifted. Meanwhile, teams of employees from nearby states were standing by, in case they were needed to staff stores while workers affected by storms returned to their homes and assessed the damage.

“The message is clear that everyone needs to respond to these types of storms and take them seriously,” spokeswoman Maureen Rich said.

In the Mooresville command center Tuesday, about 10 workers sat at long tables equipped with laptops, phones and electrical connections, sending e-mails and taking phone calls from stores in areas hit by Gustav. Others updated a Web page listing open and closed locations. Occasionally, they glanced up at a wall-size cluster of eight screens; as radar images of Tropical Storm Hanna spun across four TVs tuned to the Weather Channel, two others showed Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff on Headline News.

Lowe's started the command operations after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which cut a swath of destruction from the coast to the N.C. mountains and opened the company's eyes to the need to coordinate action across different departments, command center manager Cher Ferrouillet said.

But preparedness efforts increased following Hurricane Katrina three years ago, she said. “Katrina taught all of us a huge lesson,” she said. “Preparation is key. (And) we also have to take care of our employees.”

After Katrina, the company started readying its yearly emergency plan in January, said Ferrouillet – who with her counterpart in Wilkesboro has been managing about three to four hours of sleep a night since the storms began.

For the most part, those in the command center have received good news this time around. By Monday afternoon, all employees at the central New Orleans store, which was destroyed by Katrina three years ago, had checked in, said Clark Moore, divisional human resources director.

Lowe's stores boost their inventory of hurricane-related items from June until November, and distribution centers operate 24 hours a day during storms. Customers are also buying storm supplies earlier in the year than in the past, Ferrouillet said.