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Hurricane Harvey: Corporate America Steps Up

August 28, 2017, 6:23 PM UTC

Major corporations have an essential role to play when natural disasters hit, in both direct relief efforts and over the longer term. As the tail end of Hurricane Harvey continues to batter an increasingly desperate Houston area, it’s worth remembering how much good big business can do in times of strife.

Last week, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced a $25 million donation to support global disaster relief, in advance of the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. “Hurricane Katrina touched our customers, communities we serve, and our associates in a profound way,” he said an Instagram video posted on his personal account.

McMillon is not overstating the matter. After Katrina hit, the company found ways to step in when FEMA and other agencies failed.

A look back at Fortune’s archives tells the tale. I vividly remember when reporting for this story, which was written by former staffer Devin Leonard, hit the newsroom. The opening anecdote stars Jessica Lewis, the co-manager of a Walmart in the Gulf Coast resort town of Waveland, Miss. The entire 7,000 person town was in shreds:

Lewis felt there was only one thing to do. She had her stepbrother clear a path through the mess in the store with a bulldozer. Then she salvaged everything she could and handed it out in the parking lot. She gave socks and underwear to shivering Waveland police officers who had climbed into trees to escape the rising water. She handed out shoes to her barefoot neighbors and diapers for their babies. She gave people bottled water to drink and sausages, stored high in the warehouse, that hadn’t been touched by the flood. She even broke into the pharmacy and got insulin and drugs for AIDS patients. “This is the right thing to do,” she recalls thinking. “I hope my bosses aren’t going to have a problem with that.”

Her instincts turned out to be right, though the full story is complex. For a deeper assessment of Walmart’s rapid-fire decision making during and after the storm, you can order the Harvard Business Review’s case study here — it’s $8.95 and worth the investment. For more on McMillon’s current leadership insights, check out Brian O’Keefe’s recent profile, “The Man Who’s Reinventing Walmart.”

Ten years after Katrina, as Texas faces a natural disaster of similarly epic proportions, I expect that businesses will take the lead again.

This prediction is already coming to pass. As Fortune’s Chris Morris reports, companies like Amazon, Google, Home Depot and Starbucks have stepped up with direct cash infusions to relief organizations. In some cases, they are matching employee donations.

Going forward, I believe we’ll see more companies, agencies, and constituencies that don’t typically work together join forces to collaborate on relief efforts. Sure, caring about customers, communities, and employees is good business. But I predict that in this and future disasters, for-profit institutions will increasingly show us they are ready to step up and provide vital expertise and leadership in the face of true suffering.

Let’s keep each other posted on this.

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