From grocers cooking breakfasts for evacuees to pharmacies providing them with emergency prescription refills, retailers are pitching in to help those forced to flee the Fort McMurray wildfires.
Retailers or their foundations are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash or merchandise to the Canadian Red Cross relief fund – some are matching customers' donations at the cash register – while many are shipping everything from food to diapers, bottled water, blankets and clothing to evacuees.
Pharmacists are dispensing urgent drugs for displaced residents' after accessing patient records to confirm customers' prescriptions or sometimes waiving the need for regular customer insurance information, with the cost to be picked up by the Alberta government.
"We are helping in the best way we can," said Mayur Patel, a pharmacist at the Extra Foods store in Lac La Biche, which is roughly a three-hour drive south of Fort McMurray and a temporary home to thousands of its residents.
Amid the disaster, which has forced almost 90,000 residents to flee the northern Alberta city, retailers are mobilizing to use their stores as depots for emergency supplies even as many of the merchants were forced to close their Fort McMurray stores.
Loblaw, the country's largest retailer, which owns Extra Foods, Real Canadian Superstores and Shoppers Drug Mart, has 10 outlets in the affected area under various banners.
"Loblaw trucks are now being loaded literally as we speak with life essentials – food, water, batteries and clothing – ready to make their trips up to the Fort McMurray area," Galen G. Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw, told its annual meeting last Thursday.
The company has committed $300,000 in cash or merchandise donations to the Red Cross relief efforts, while giant discounter Wal-Mart Canada Corp., through the Wal-Mart Foundation, has committed $400,000 to the Red Cross and $100,00 to local employees. Sobeys Inc., the country's second-largest grocer, is matching customers' cash donations up to $100,00 and providing about $200,000 of products.
Carl Stafford, produce manager at the Sobeys store at Lac La Biche, has been helping to organize daily hot breakfasts for evacuees at the local recreation centre. As he spoke on the telephone, the Sobeys franchisee co-owner, Willie Abougouche, was roasting potatoes as part of a hot lunch for volunteers. And staff were about to load its trucks with two shopping carts full of prepared, fresh and frozen meats donated by suppliers Grimms and Centennial Packers to take to the centre.
"A lot of us are are working 12, 14, 16 hours a day, getting extra trucks in to keep people fed," Mr. Stafford said. "We don't know how many evacuees are coming in every day. Some days an extra 400 people show up in town. … One little girl came up to me, she was probably seven or eight years old, and she said: 'Do you realize our house just burned so we have nothing.'"
George Cloete, pharmacist-owner at one of the four Shoppers stores in Fort McMurray, fled with other staff to Edmonton on May 3 as smoke filled the air around his store. All 55 of his employees are safe.
But he's been through it before, when he was a Shoppers pharmacist in fire-stricken Slave Lake, Alta., five years ago. "It was déjà vu for me. … This is statistically just not possible," Mr. Cloete said. Back then, his store was saved with minor damage but his house was destroyed. This time in Fort McMurray, he thinks his store was saved but has no idea about his home. Now he is focused on helping a pharmacist in Edmonton in his Shoppers store, dispensing some critical prescriptions for familiar customers from Fort McMurray.
Other retailers are making their own contributions. Online men's clothier Frank & Oak of Montreal is shipping 1,500 tops, bottoms, underwear, socks and shoes to Edmonton Emergency Relief Services, writing it off as a charitable gift, a spokeswoman said.
Last Thursday, Sobeys sent five trailers of 45,000 items including hygiene products, sandwiches and pet food to evacuees at camps north of Fort McMurray. Sobeys also left the keys to its three namesake and Safeway stores in the city (it also has two liquor stores there) with Alberta officials, so they could get food and other essentials for first responders. It sent other large shipments of merchandise to other communities in the area.
Loblaw also provided first responders in Fort McMurray access to its closed stores for supplies, spokeswoman Tammy Smitham said. And it provided Joe Fresh apparel, personal hygiene, health supplies and food to evacuation centres in Edmonton and Lac La Biche, as well as a shipment of pet food to the local humane society for abandoned pets.
Local staff at Wal-Mart, which has one store in Fort McMurray, are organizing store events such as barbecues and bake sales to raise money, operations director Lee Jeyes said. The retailer also donated 250 shopping carts to the Edmonton emergency centre.
In Lac La Biche, Mr. Patel, the pharmacist at Extra Foods, has been able to fill what he estimates are between 20 and 50 prescriptions for Fort McMurray evacuees with blood pressure and heart conditions. "Some people had already missed a couple of days" of taking their prescriptions.