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Among challenges after Wilma, sorting sea life from office supplies

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Among challenges after Wilma, sorting sea life from office supplies

As the nation struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina during the fall of 2005, not many people initially paid much attention to a storm that grew into Hurricane Wilma. But for Carol Arendall, senior director-risk management for Naperville, Ill.-based Office- Max Inc.—who'd been on the job for less than six months—Hurricane Wilma proved to be a challenge indeed.

"We were not as severely impacted at OfficeMax by Hurricane Katrina as we were with Hurricane Wilma from a property loss standpoint," said Ms. Arendall. Hurricane Katrina's impact for OfficeMax was more organizational, giving rise to challenges that concerned personnel more than property.

"Our stores may not have been as affected by Hurricane Katrina, (but) our associates were," said Ms. Arendall. "We had a lot of internal things going on here to reach out to our associates as well as corporate contributions to help with the effort, including at the Astrodome" in Houston, where many refugees from New Orleans took shelter.

Hurricane Wilma "just sort of came out of nowhere" when it struck Florida in late October 2005, said Ms. Arendall. "Our Key West store sits in a shopping center. I'm guessing it's a quarter mile off the ocean and a storm surge came through and put four feet of water in there—including fish, shrimp, the whole nine yards," she said.

On the mainland of Florida, OfficeMax's Palm Beach Gardens store was hit by a microburst or tornado, she said. Wilma collapsed the roof of the OfficeMax outlet and a neighboring store, but a grocery store only 50 yards away escaped unscathed, she said.

"I was just caught off guard," said Ms. Arendall. Media coverage "hadn't made such a big deal out of it. I think the deal with Hurricane Wilma was just how long it lasted. It kind of stalled over Florida."

She flew to Key West on Halloween, a week after the hurricane struck. "I was clearly ill-prepared," she said. Her hotel lacked electricity, and revelers—primarily displaced residents—partied in the hallways, she said.

When she got to the store, she found more than a mess.

"They were picking up fish in the stockroom and throwing it out," she said.

But there was no place to throw it.

"One of the most difficult issues we had in Key West was getting Dumpsters. There are no garbage Dumpsters—you couldn't get them. Think about how far they have to bring a garbage Dumpster down. There's no place to put your garbage. And they're very sensitive about garbage disposal."

An adjuster from Lexington Insurance Co.—OfficeMax's property insurer—went through the facility to check for damage. Then employees "got down to the business of hand-salvaging our merchandise," she said.

Ms. Arendall arranged to have trash containers brought in from a contractor in Miami. The loaded containers went back to Miami for emptying, she said. The arrangement saved both time and money as OfficeMax didn't have to join other businesses in the queue for the extremely limited number of dumpsters available in Key West—the final island connected to the mainland by a single highway.

Ms. Arendall encountered a grimmer situation in Palm Beach Gardens. In fact, the store was condemned initially, she said. "We got an engineer in there and got that uncondemned. We got our merchandise pulled out and got the building cleaned up," she said.

The five-day trip through hurricane-ravaged South Florida "was the biggest odyssey of my career," said Ms. Arendall. She ran out of clean clothes and money and "nobody would take a credit card down there." ATMs didn't work and food was at a premium, she said. Traffic lights didn't work, and gridlock ruled.

Nevertheless, the Key West store reopened Jan. 5, 2006. Palm Beach Gardens "took a little bit longer" and reopened that June because of difficulty finding people to fix the roof, a task that was the landlord's responsibility. In most cases, the landlord insures the exterior of the store while OfficeMax insures its contents, Ms. Arendall said.

The storms tested OfficeMax's emergency response committee, she said. The committee consists of several permanent members, including risk management, as well as representatives of other departments brought in as needed.

"If we know a storm is approaching, the committee will meet and talk with the operations group," she said. Members seek answers to questions such as: "What do we need to do for the impending storm? How do they shut down computer systems; how do you bring that back up? How do you make sure they have sandbags?" she said. After the event, the committee must determine if stores have all that is needed to reopen as quickly as possible.

"But a real important part of the committee's responsibility is: Where are our associates and how are they?" Ms. Arendall said. The company's human resources department will set up a call center "where we can make sure we can keep track of our associates."

Like virtually every other business function, doing so was quite difficult in the wake of the storms. After Katrina, associates' cell phones didn't work and people fled their normal areas, she said.

A key question was making sure associates received their pay.

"That was probably one of the most challenging things," said Ms. Arendall. Without ATMs, getting cash to employees was no easy task. Ultimately, the company put out word that associates should go to the nearest OfficeMax store, even if they had temporarily relocated, so they could receive cash payments once the store confirmed that the people were indeed OfficeMax employees. The company worked with armored car services to get the cash where it needed to be, she said.