Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response is legendary. The large company did something the government wasn’t able to do at the time–provide help on the ground.
We’ll discuss what made Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response so successful and why it depended on the empowerment of employees.
Walmart and Hurricane Katrina
When authorities don’t relinquish power in a complex situation, they’re likely to fail. The response when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005 illustrates both how centralized power fails and how empowerment works in such situations. This is the story of Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response.
Initial reports after the hurricane made landfall in New Orleans at 6 a.m. were falsely reassuring because, with power and cell service down, they were extremely incomplete. Director Michael Brown and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced the situation was mostly under control.
But by afternoon the levees had been breached and 80 percent of the city was flooded; 20,000 people were stranded at the Superdome, 20,000 were at a convention center, and another 5,000 had been deposited on an overpass by rescue helicopters. Tens of thousands were stranded in attics and on rooftops.
The government’s command-and-control system became overwhelmed, with too many decisions to make and too little information available. But authorities clung to the traditional model. They argued with state and local government officials over the power to make decisions, resulting in chaos. Supply trucks were halted and requisitions for buses were held up while local transit buses sat idle.
WalMart executives, however, took the opposite approach from command and control. They realized Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response could make a huge difference. Recognizing the complexity of the circumstances, CEO Lee Scott announced to managers and employees that the company would respond at the level of the disaster. He empowered local employees to make the best decisions they could.
Within 48 hours, employees had gotten more than half the 126 damaged stores up and running, and they began providing help wherever they saw needs — for instance, distributing diapers, water, baby formula, and ice. While FEMA couldn’t figure out how to move supplies, WalMart managers created paper credit systems for first responders, providing them with food and supplies during Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response.
Individuals felt empowered to make their own decisions. The assistant manager of a severely flooded store drove a bulldozer through it, loaded up everything useable, and gave it away in the parking lot. When she learned that a local hospital was running out of drugs, she broke into the store’s pharmacy to get what the hospital needed.
Meanwhile, instead of issuing instructions, senior company officials facilitated the team — they set goals, measured progress, and opened communication lines with the front line and official agencies.
Given the common goal to do what they could and coordinate, employees of Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response came up with some spontaneously creative solutions, including:
- Mobile pharmacies as well as free medications at their stores for evacuees without a prescription.
- Free check cashing for payroll and other checks.
- Clinics that offered inoculations against flood-borne illnesses.
Within two days, the company got tractor-trailers full of supplies past roadblocks and into the city. They provided water and food to refugees a day before the government appeared on the scene. In total, WalMart sent 2,498 trailer loads of supplies and donated $3.5 million in goods to shelters and command centers. This is the power of Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response.
The lesson of Walmart’s Hurricane Katrina response is that under extreme and complex conditions, where a single person has insufficient knowledge to make the right calls, if people are empowered to act, work together, and adapt, they can achieve extraordinary success where centralized control would fail.
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