As Sun Comes Out in Houston, the Search for Basics Begins -- Update

By Ben Kesling, Heather Haddon and Sarah Nassauer Features Dow Jones Newswires

The sun came out over this drenched city early Wednesday, which brought out throngs of people clamoring for groceries, gasoline and other supplies, and jamming streets with traffic even as continued flooding shut down roads and kept rescue teams busy.

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Many people spent the day in a fruitless search in parts of the city, as stores remained closed due to flooding or power outages, but some bigger stories, like Wal-Mart, were starting to get back to business.

Andrew Gary filled up his truck with fuel, and the two gas cans in the bed, at a Shell gasoline station near the Nottingham Forest neighborhood in northwest Houston.

"There was no place to drive, you could only go a mile in each direction, " the 60-year-old said of the past week during Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath, adding that people can now get out and about and will probably start looking for fuel and other necessities.

Retailers are struggling to meet the need. Harvey is slated to cause $1 billion in lost sales for retailers, according to an estimate by the Planalytics weather analytics firm.

A spokeswoman for HEB, a large grocer in Texas, said the company was using helicopters to airlift employees to help get deliveries into affected stores. "We are diligently working on deliveries and are in a strong position to restock quickly," she said.

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A Kroger Co. spokeswoman said the companies has dispatched trucks from distribution centers across the country and "stores are actively being restocked." At 115 stores, Houston is Kroger's third largest market.

"They are reopening with limited quantities of goods and they are rebuilding from there," she said.

Open stores are operating on limited hours and averaging around 25% of their usual staffing levels, prompting the retailer to let shoppers inside in batches of 10 to 20 to avoid any safety or crowding issues, the spokeswoman said. Employees are being bused from the Dallas area to help with staffing.

"We have skeletal teams right now," she said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is reopening many stores in the Houston area, some on a limited basis, and trucks are coming from across the country to quickly restock shelves, says Todd Manley a regional vice president for Wal-Mart in Texas who lives in the area.

Around 22 Wal-Marts, Sam's Clubs and warehouses in the storm-affected area are closed Wednesday, down from 134 on Tuesday, said the company.

Shelves are stocked with many supplies, though some like bread and eggs are expected to arrive on trucks later Wednesday, said Mr. Manley. As employees struggle to travel to work, Wal-Mart is asking shoppers to line up outside stores to enter a few dozen at a time to prevent overcrowding, Mr. Manley said.

"They are very understanding and appreciate that Wal-Mart is open," he said. Other stores nearby also are starting to reopen, he added.

At Wal-Mart, many shoppers are buying items like bedding or pillows to donate to local shelters, along with food for themselves, said Mr. Manley. Many first responders are shopping. "They have been on the water for three days. They don't have dry socks, dry shirts, dry underwear and shelters don't have laundry so they need those things."

Down the street from where Mr. Gary bought his gas, customers drove up to a Kroger grocery store, got out of their cars, then got right back in and drove away. The store's power went out around 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, so it couldn't open. The store manager, who didn't give her name because she wasn't authorized to speak with the media, said she had already turned away a steady stream of people.

Eighty-year-old Nancy Connington, was one of those disappointed customers. All up and down the street, shuttered shops and closed stores prevented her from buying fresh groceries, she said. She had gassed up her car and bought canned goods before the storm, so all she wanted was some fresh produce after days without it.

One place down the street was open but there were long lines and she said she just couldn't wait. "I'm an old lady," she said. "I'm not standing in line."

But she was content with her stocked pantry and a second-floor condo, which likely won't flood. "I consider myself lucky," she said.

Ronald and Ausi Kimmons walked up to the store and turned right back around, toting their three children who didn't look too happy to be out running errands.

"We're looking for charcoal," Mr. Kimmons said, since the power was out at home and they wanted to cook a hot meal. They had gone out the night before to get groceries but stores were out of staples like bread and tortillas.

A mile or so away, rescue crews launched boats into a flooded neighborhood that saw water levels continue to rise. Black Hawk helicopters flew overhead regularly to survey the area and police tried to keep traffic from grinding to a halt as rescue volunteers, people looking for supplies and some gawkers drove slowly by busy intersections.

Among the few convenience stores in the area that were open, most had run out of bread and were running low on things like booze. People standing in the parking lots of understocked or closed stores routinely greeted newcomers, many of whom asked where the closest open grocery store happened to be.

Nobody knew where to send them.

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com, Heather Haddon at heather.haddon@wsj.com and Sarah Nassauer at sarah.nassauer@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 30, 2017 17:32 ET (21:32 GMT)