ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Retail chains also have a big role in responding to natural disasters. They supply the batteries, toilet paper, flashlights, lumber and other stuff that people need. Peter Capel runs Home Depot's Hurricane Command Center in Atlanta. First I asked him to describe the center.
PETER CAPEL: It's a number of rooms all on one floor that contain merchants. It contains replenishment. It contains crisis management, government relations, logistics, transportation, human resources, operations all working together in one big effort to make sure that we can meet any needs from our people that work for us as well as the customers in the community.
SHAPIRO: Between hurricane Harvey in Texas and now Irma approaching Florida, what is a typical day like for you right now?
CAPEL: It is very long. It can be very busy. There's a lot of unexpected things that can happen in between. There's just a lot of moving parts to it.
SHAPIRO: I was in Houston when Hurricane Ike hit the city a decade ago. And I went to the first Home Depot that reopened after the storm. People were lined up around the block. And I started asking people in line what they were there to buy. And everyone told me they wanted the same thing. This is some tape from there, in 2008.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Generators.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Generator.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Generator, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Generator, like everybody else.
SHAPIRO: So Pete Capel, how many generators do you have on hand, and what happens when you run out of the one item that everybody wants?
CAPEL: Well, I can tell you we haven't run out. At some point, we have to stop shipping product into those areas 'cause we're not going to put anybody in harm's way. We're not going to put drivers, transportation companies - to move that out. And at the rate and velocity at which these things sell, at some point, you're going to run out.
SHAPIRO: How do you make sure people don't gouge on prices? I mean when there is such demand for something with a limited...
CAPEL: Yeah, our...
SHAPIRO: ...Supply, economics say people will pay a lot for it.
CAPEL: I can speak to you on behalf of Home Depot. When an area is declared in a state of emergency - be it a county, be it a state - we freeze our prices immediately, all of them. And we don't raise them.
SHAPIRO: Now, I understand you keep a diary of lessons that you learned from each of these disasters. And you've been doing this for a long time, so you've learned a lot of lessons. What's one thing that you put in the diary that you've learned from this hurricane season so far?
CAPEL: I actually have my book right here...
SHAPIRO: Oh, yeah? Open it up for us. What does it say?
CAPEL: ...With me. Well, there's lots of different things in this book that we've learned over a period of years, again, to try to get better each time this happens, to try to get quicker, faster - all the things that you talked about - if everybody wants the generator or how do I resupply something. There's lots of lessons learned in here.
SHAPIRO: Well, tell me one lesson that you've learned from Harvey already.
CAPEL: Well, one lesson we learned from Harvey is something we learned long ago. When you see a storm such as Harvey coming, you have to get goods there before the storm gets there. You can't wait until after. And we get better at that every time.
SHAPIRO: Is there a temptation to send all of your supplies to a place like Harvey and then when a storm like Irma approaches, you realize you don't have what you need in order to...
SHAPIRO: ...Respond to a second disaster?
CAPEL: Like I said, we have distribution centers set up across the southern United States. And if we have to draw from any one of them like we did for Harvey, we immediately reloaded those, especially anything we took out of any of our hurricane distribution centers to send to Harvey. Simultaneously, we're reloading what we took out. It was still early in the hurricane season. It was a really good move to reload the ones on the East Coast because as soon as we reloaded them, Irma starts coming across.
SHAPIRO: Pete Capel is Home Depot's vice president of field merchandising, and he runs the company's Hurricane Command Center. Thanks for talking with us.
CAPEL: Thank you, Sir. Have a great day.
(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "WITH RAINY EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.