As the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma continues to be assessed, there is good reason to believe that extreme weather patterns will increasingly be a factor in the fresh produce and grocery supply chain, and it gives us pause to consider how to best prepare for future occurrences.
While Harvey was a smaller storm, it settled over Houston, establishing a contiguous U.S. record for sustained rainfall in the process. Irma, on the other hand, turned out to be less catastrophic in any one location, but it traveled a thousand miles from Key West to Indiana, and so it brought destruction to a much broader area.
The economic and logistical impact of the hurricanes will be significant. Texas and Florida account for 15% of the U.S. economy, 2nd, and 4th respectively among states and about 7% of U.S. trucking activity. While Houston is an important manufacturing city, Florida’s economy is centered more on consumer activity, although in the case of Irma, it inflicted significant damage on Florida’s citrus crop.
Prior to Irma, a yield of over 68 million boxes of oranges and almost 8 million boxes of grapefruit had been predicted once harvesting begins around Thanksgiving, valued at nearly $1 billion. As a result of Irma, a lot of citrus fruit was knocked to the ground, and the harvest will be significantly impacted. About 90% of the crop becomes juice. Irma also has also played havoc with the sugar cane crop, although it is too early to assess the damage.
On a brighter note, Florida’s strawberry crop seems to have gone largely unscathed. According to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association, Irma destroyed some of the plastic spread over strawberry fields before planting, but growers will be able to plant on time over the next few weeks.
In Georgia, Irma resulted in significant damage to at least 30% of the state’s pecan crop, according to Lenny Wells, an associate professor at the University of Georgia:
Hurricane/Tropical Storm Irma has become the most damaging wind event ever seen by the Georgia pecan industry. Roaring through Georgia on Monday with sustained winds of 20-40 mph and gusts reaching from 50-75 mph, Irma brought damage to virtually every pecan orchard in the state, significantly weakening what was a healthy 2017 pecan crop.
Meanwhile, the grocery business worked toward a rapid recovery in Houston, with major retailers utilizing a range of resources. H-E-B flew in truck drivers by helicopter to help ensure timely deliveries, while Kroger brought in busloads of employees from out of state and Walmart, accessing distribution centers from around the country, shipped more than 1000 loads, much of the cargo bottled water, to South Texas. As part of the humanitarian effort, H-E-B dispatched a convoy of more than 15 vehicles, including Disaster Response Units (DRUs), H‑E‑B Mobile Kitchens, water and fuel tankers and H‑E‑B trailers to communities in the affected hurricane area.
So, what can be done to better prepare for extreme weather? One area of research has been in the development of more resilient crops, such as drought-resistant plants. Researchers at the University of Southern California and Texas A&M, for example, have recently explored the role of leaf wax production in certain varieties of wheat in allowing it to more successfully grow in arid conditions.
At the retail level, there are three essential steps that can be undertaken, according to Andrew Blatherwick, chairman of RELEX Solutions.
As a first step, he recommends identifying all grocery items that are being impacted by extreme weather, and which will experience a massive demand surge as a result. Secondly, he suggests using weather forecasts to ensure they have the correct safety stock levels in place for when extreme weather hits, such as ample quantities of bread, water, and eggs. Finally, Blatherwick recommends running "what-if" scenarios to simulate how a supply chain would behave in the face of hurricanes or other extreme weather.
Best practices in extreme weather response continue to be refined in the face of unexpected challenges, such as the severe flooding experienced in Houston which impeded the ability of trucks to deliver needed goods. Best practices will increasingly rely on weather prediction, anticipated catastrophe demand, and the coordination of supply lines from immediately outside of the extreme weather zone to provide timely relief to those in immediate need.