By Erin Rigik, Senior Editor
At Dion’s Quik Marts in south Florida, May marks the beginning of annual hurricane preparation month, where all 12 stores ensure they’re ready to respond should a hurricane strike the area.
“We have every store go through its routine, including putting up the hurricane shutters, making sure all the bolts are in place and verifying that everything is in good working order,” said Joe Sucharzewski, director of operations at Dion’s Quik Marts. “Among other things, we make sure our 24-hour stores know where to find the keys to the front door and that the alarms are working in case they have to evacuate.”
Sucharzewski has operated convenience stores while fending off his share of hurricanes. He worked at both Dion’s—when Ike, Fay and Irene hit the area—and during his career at 7-Eleven, when Andrew and Charlie ravaged the region.
“When I was at 7-Eleven, Charlie not only impacted the Southwest Coast, but took stores out all the way to Orlando,” Sucharzewski said. “In our market in southwest Florida we had 57 stores down. A couple were down two weeks or more, and one store was down for over three months.”
With so many major hurricanes under his belt, Sucharzewski knows better than anyone that having proper disaster procedures in place is crucial to running a c-store business in the eye of the storm. His best advice to other convenience store chains located in areas frequented by hurricanes or other storms is not to underestimate how quickly the storms can change course, speed or strength.
“Don’t ever think you’re out of harm’s way. During Charlie in August 2004, around 1 p.m. the storm was in the Gulf, some 70 miles out, and barely a category one. By the time 3 p.m. hit, it was at 150 miles an hour and came right on land,” Sucharzewski said. “It was never supposed to come into southwestern Florida, so anything can happen.”
It’s also important not to underestimate lower category storms. While a category five hurricane comes in quickly and leaves devastation in its wake, the category one and two hurricanes move more slowly, staying longer and eroding infrastructure and power lines, which means recovery time can take even longer, Sucharzewski said.
It’s important for convenience stores—and all businesses—to have disaster preparedness plans because storms don’t discriminate in terms of where and when they strike.
“It’s beyond your control to prevent a natural disaster from happening, but it’s within your control to create and implement a plan to effectively respond to the disaster,” said Richard Daigle, spokesman for the U.S. Small Business Administration, Office of Disaster Assistance in Atlanta.
Daigle noted that up to 40% of businesses affected by a natural or human disaster never reopen.
“A business can improve its chances for post-disaster success by taking appropriate steps to prepare for a disaster,” Daigle said. “An Ad Council survey indicated that nearly two-thirds of respondents did not have an
emergency plan in place for their business. No business should assume a disaster will never strike, but should instead prepare as much as possible.”
Once a storm is reported to be on the way, Dion’s begins executing its hurricane plan, which employees have practiced and trained for. Days before the storm is scheduled to hit, the dozen stores are already closed and shuttered. Managers make sure they have lists of all employee cell phone numbers and who is planning to evacuate the area.
“We want to make sure the staff is safe and know where everyone is headed. If we can’t get in touch with someone, we can notify authorities in case that person needs help,” Sucharzewski said.
Before the stores close, employees follow the plan, including duties such as wrapping gas pumps in bubble wrap, and opening empty register drawers so registers won’t be broken in the event of looting. Electronic equipment is covered with plastic bags. Anything that is not bolted to the ground, such as garbage cans, are placed in the store so 100-plus mile-per-hour winds won’t send them sailing through a window.
Having the right supplies on hand in advance also aids reopening.
“When we have any kind of a warning, we get gallons of water delivered. Every store orders 60-100 cases of water ahead of time, and we try to stock stores as much as possible, just in case,” Sucharzewski said.
Company stores also avoid scheduling shipments of perishable items around the days the storm is expected to hit in order to minimize loss.
Dion’s also advises its employees to prepare their homes and themselves for any impending disaster, reminding them to secure their homes early, fill up their gas tanks, stock up on water and canned goods, as well as any medications, cash and other necessities like flashlights and batteries.
Back Up Power
Once the storm passes, backup generators are key to getting stores back up quickly. “Backup generators are very useful in any disaster where power loss is possible,” Daigle said.
In Florida, stores like Dion’s are required to have backup generators by law. “We’re located on the escape route because we’re the only route out of the Florida Keys, so every gas station has to have either an automatic generator hooked up, or a hook up situation that can accommodate a portable generator,” Sucharzewski said.
Dion’s has an automatic generator at its Key West office and at Dion’s Oil in Homestead, Fla. One Dion’s Quik Marts store contains an automatic generator, while the company also has three portable diesel generators on trailers that can be transported to any store in need.
The portable generators are especially useful in that they can be moved to wherever they are most needed, but that also comes with the risk that flooding or other damage could cause roads to close and prevent the equipment from getting through.
Assuming the roads are clear, however, they can be brought in after the storm passes.
Meanwhile, automatic generators, run the risk of being impacted by the storm. “Our office in Key West has a generator, but if it floods there that generator is gone,” Sucharzewski said. “So you can’t hide from these storms. You just hope that once it passes you can get fuel, generators and emergency equipment into the area.”
Rocky Lee, general manager and owner of two Kar-Go convenience stores in Virginia, has also seen his share of hurricanes and tornados pass through the rural area of Virginia where his stores are based. However, storms are just one factor that can cause a power outage that interrupts operations.
“This area here has very unstable power in general,” Lee said.
To combat the frequent power outages, Lee recently installed an automatic Generac generator at his Claudeville, Va. location. “It’s a permanently-installed, 100,000-watt generator, which is bolted to concrete and fully automatic. It’s always there when we need it.”
Before installing the generator, when power outages occurred, Kar-Go had to contend with spoilage issues involving food and ice cream.
“We also had to have someone here to watch the store during the night, because we’re in such a rural area that if the power went out looting could be a potential problem,” Lee said.
Local residents as well as commuters have come to depend on Kar-Go—one of the only c-stores around for miles—to remain up and running. For Lee, staying open in times of power outages provides an important community service.
“We can’t really afford to lose power for any length of time,” he said. “It’s five miles in one direction to the nearest store and it’s 10 miles to the nearest store in the other direction, so in difficult times, I want to be here for our customers.”
Kar-Go’s prime generator features an automatic transfer switch and turns on by itself if the power disappears. “If the power goes off, the transfer switch realizes there’s no power coming in and sends a signal to the generator and within 10 seconds the generator starts up and within 15-20 seconds the generator transfers the load and is able to power the building,” Lee said.
The generator is able to supply electricity to the entire facility, from the parking lot lights to the pizza ovens. “There is no difference between the power being supplied from the utility company and the generator,” Lee said. “So the process is simple and seamless.”
Lee is about to begin a rebuild on his second location, and has plans to install a generator in that location as well.
“Storms enhance the power outages in the area, but because this is a very rural area, we have power lines running through woods, mountains and farm lands, so sometimes a tractor trailer hits a pole or there are hurricanes that come through in the fall and we have power out for four days, Lee said. “We have had tornadoes that come close to touching down and have torn up canopies.”
When he knows a storm is coming, Lee takes precautions and closes the store. “After it passes, that’s when we have to start dealing with the power outages,” he said. “It’s a community service to have a generator because it allows people to get hot soup and water and anything they might not have at home.”
Lee opted for a propane generator because it has a longer shelf life than diesel, and because it’s quicker to start in colder weather.
Towable vs. Portable
C-store chains interested in adding a generator need to decide if they want to have an automatic generator permanently installed, or bring in a towable generator once the storm passes.
The permanent generator, like at Lee’s Kar-Go, turns on automatically and shuts down again when the power returns.
If renting, leasing or buying towable generators, stores would still need to have an electrical box installed that the generator would plug into in the event of a power outage. The towable generators then have to be brought in and manually hooked up.
Disaster Preparedness 101
Daigle directs businesses to www.ready.gov, which offers five steps for creating an effective disaster preparedness program. “It may take some financial and human resource commitment, but disaster preparedness action taken now can pay off in a big way during times of disaster,” Daigle noted.
The Website recommends that businesses create a preparedness policy. During the planning stage, strategies for prevention and risk mitigation should be developed, while specific threats are identified. Planning should also include a business impact analysis,
where time sensitive or critical processes are identified, as well as the financial and operation impacts that come from a business disruption.
C-stores should consider what resources they will need once business begins again, such as bottled water and canned goods, for customers or a generator to keep power up and running for fuel. A plan to protect the store is also vital, such as closing up stores early as well as properly locking down and boarding up the store to prevent as much damage as possible.
“The company should help its employees develop family preparedness plans. If an employee’s family is safe, he or she can sooner return to work to help the company,” Daigle said. “A communication plan is also essential. Who is calling whom? How do you reach your employees if cell towers and emails are down?”
Dion’s Sucharzewski knows that challenge well: “When Charlie came through only Verizon worked—every other cell phone company was out. I had AT&T, and we had to drive 80 miles just to get communication going,” he said.
A business continuity plan is also key. Having strategies in place to overcome business disruption can keep business losses to a minimum. “An information technology plan is also needed to ensure essential data is not lost. How do you replace hardware lost due to a disaster? Is all data safely backed up?” Daigle said.
Above all, train and test employees with drills so everyone understands their roles and assigned tasks should a hurricane or other disaster strike. “To the highest degree possible, test the plan to see how it works in a practical sense. Use exercises to simulate actual conditions,” Daigle said. “Of course, conducting testing and exercises may not be practical during store hours so, assuming a store is not open 24/7, before a store opening or after closing may be optimal times.”
Once you have a disaster response program in place, continue to critique and improve the program. Adjustments based on lessons learned can help you become better equipped in the event of the next disaster.
“You learn from just going through it year after year after year, and you hope you’re smart enough in your preparation and that you come out of it unscathed,” Sucharzewski said. “We just try to be proactive, making sure the stores have what we need and that we’ve run through the drills every May, so our employees know what to do.”
Above all, once the storm is imminent, never forget that anything can happen. “I think it was Hurricane Fay, that went from a category one to a five to a three and back to a five, all in a day or two, so don’t ever take it for granted or assume it’s not a big enough storm to worry about,” Sucharzewski said. “Be respectful of it.”