Business & Economy

Why supermarkets stay open during nearby fires and storms

Supermarkets serve a community need during disasters
Supermarkets serve a community need during disasters
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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During recent fires and mudslides in Southern California, supermarkets have stayed open when other businesses in affected areas start to close down. 

Vons spokeswoman Jenna Watkinson said stores like the one currently in Montecito's storm evacuation zone have kept their doors open because supermarkets can be a lifeline for residents who need to grab last-minute food, water or other supplies.

"Despite the area being evacuated, our goal is first and foremost to serve the community and to stay open as much as we can," Watkinson said. 

Staffing can be an issue, especially when employees need to tend to their own emergency preparations. But Watkinson said so far in Montecito, Vons has been able to count on workers showing up to keep the store running.

Aaron Berends, store director at the Montecito Vons, said customers in the area have been ordered to evacuate multiple times in recent months. And during each event, the supermarket has become a kind of community hub. 

"When you see people coming through covered in mud — residents or fire department — and they need to use the restroom or they need some water, you want to be there for them," Berends said.

California supermarkets actually have a plan in place for major disasters.  After the 2007 wildfires, the California Grocers Association signed a memorandum of understanding with the state's Office of Emergency Services. It outlines how supermarkets would coordinate with emergency personnel.

So far, there hasn't been a disaster big enough to put those plans in action on a statewide level. But California Grocers Association spokesman Dave Heylen said the agreement highlights the role supermarkets can play during stressful times.

"There's a very calming effect when individuals know that they are still able to purchase groceries," said Heylen.