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U.S. companies hustle to re-staff, reopen after Sandy

By Phil Wahba and Jessica Wohl

NEW YORK/CHICAGO (Reuters) - After Hurricane Sandy bashed the East Coast with wind, flooding and a blizzard, companies scrambled on Tuesday to assess the damage, figure out how to get staff back on the job, and get customers what they needed from fresh water to roofing supplies, Wi-Fi and power for laptops.

With the holiday season quickly approaching, retailers in particular hurried to get back to business.

At Home Depot, one of the biggest challenges during the height of the storm was constantly rerouting trucks filled with supplies as local officials ordered roads closed, said Doug Spiron, Emergency Response Captain at the No. 1 home improvement chain's command center.

A total of 441 stores faced at least tropical storm strength winds during the storm, with 18 facing hurricane force winds. At the peak on Monday, 44 Home Depot stores were closed.

"The biggest challenge that we faced was the sheer size of this," Spiron said.

One new strategy that helped Home Depot move goods to stores quickly was paying drivers to stay with trucks at distribution centers during the storm so they could immediately begin deliveries when the storm passed, Spiron said. By late Tuesday afternoon, the number of Home Depot stores closed had dropped to 11.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc had 267 stores closed as of late Monday night. By Tuesday afternoon that was down to 80 stores in 10 states.

"Customers were buying bread and water faster than we could literally replenish it, but we've been able to start putting a dent in that" by working with local suppliers, said Henry Jordan, senior vice president of the Eastern Seaboard division for Walmart U.S.

The world's largest retailer said none of its facilities had been seriously damaged, and there was no disruption to holiday planning.

"I think the lesson is that the East Coast needs to prepare for hurricanes just like the Gulf Coast needs to because, you know, that's an area that prior to Irene was not an issue," said Mark Cooper, Wal-Mart's senior director of Global Emergency Management.

Luxury department store Saks Inc said on Tuesday that it had reopened three stores in Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The retailer's flagship store on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, which generates about 20 percent of the company's sales, and five other stores in New Jersey and Connecticut were due to reopen on Wednesday, said spokeswoman Julia Bentley.

Macy's Inc said its Herald Square flagship store in Manhattan and others in the city and in parts of New Jersey were closed on Tuesday.

"The determining factor is if the store and shopping center have electricity, and if associates are able to get to work," Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski said, adding that the company had 195 stores closed all or part of the day on Monday, about a quarter of its locations.

DESPERATELY SEEKING COFFEE

New Yorkers searching for a cup of coffee had more luck with small chains or delicatessens and, in some cases, Dunkin' Donuts than Starbucks .

On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, two Starbucks stores on Broadway six blocks apart were closed. A window sign read: "Blame the weatherman, not us. Sorry but we are closed to inclement weather. We look forward to seeing you soon."

French Roast at 85th Street and Broadway had a long line of customers waiting for a place in the bistro-style eatery. A nearby Dunkin' Donuts was closed.

Dunkin' Donuts franchisees are responsible for making decisions to open their restaurants, a spokesman said, adding that the stores at Rockefeller Center and Penn Station were open.

Sue Chen, who owns three Dunkin' Donut stores on Long Island where almost a million homes and businesses were without power, had power at two of her stores.

"I have to thank my manager," Chen said on Tuesday from behind the counter at her store in Sea Cliff, where she was helping five employees keep up with demand. "Last night, at 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock, he came here and started to make the bagels." Chen said workers at the store live nearby, so the manager told them to come in.

About 250 Starbucks stores from Virginia to Maine were closed, said spokeswoman Haley Drage. "All of our New York metro stores are closed," she said, adding that the company was assessing when it could safely reopen the stores.

"We're trying to ensure partner safety. We don't want partners traveling if it's not safe," she said, noting that authorities in many localities had urged residents to limit traveling.

LATE NIGHT BLUES

Some large media companies in New York struggled with power outages at their offices on Tuesday.

Viacom's offices for its Comedy Central, TV Land and Spike TV networks in Lower Manhattan near the Hudson River had no electricity or phone service on Tuesday and employees stayed home, a spokesman said.

Comedy Central's hit late night shows "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report", which have Manhattan studios, canceled tapings on Monday and Tuesday.

Media companies in Midtown Manhattan, above power outages, fared better.

At HBO, which is owned by Time Warner Inc , a spokesman said the New York-based shows "Girls" and "Boardwalk Empire" had already wrapped production so they were unaffected by the storm. New York staff who had electricity were working from home on Tuesday "doing what needs to be done to keep the network running," he said.

A spokeswoman for NBC Universal , which is headquartered at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, said news operations had been working around the clock, and its Chief Executive Steve Burke was in the office on Monday and Tuesday. She said most employees had been working from home, but they would start trickling back to the office in the next few days.

Staff at news magazine "The Week" hauled their own computers and servers down five flights of stairs on Tuesday morning to set up a temporary office in a hotel conference room across the street so they could meet their printing deadline.

U.S. telephone companies struggled to provide services on Tuesday as flooding, power outages and even snow crippled their networks. The Federal Communications Commission estimated that about 25 percent of wireless broadcast towers were out on Tuesday and that outages could worsen before getting better.

Verizon Communications spent the day trying to pump water from central offices that house critical equipment for home phone, Internet and television services.

DRUGMAKERS SEEK ALTERNATIVES

Drugmakers, heavily concentrated in New York and New Jersey, were laid low by the storm. Novartis AG said all of its offices in the area were closed on Tuesday, as did insulin maker Novo Nordisk.

GlaxoSmithKline Plc said it had implemented a continuity plan to ensure medicines would be distributed, especially given the numerous airport closures. The company also said there was sufficient inventory in the supply chain to avoid serious disruptions.

Relatively high amounts of pharmaceuticals move by air, since drugs are light and high-value items, meaning companies like GSK have to arrange road transportation when air transportation is unavailable.

BASF, the world's largest chemical company, said its East Coast facilities had sustained minor damage in the storm.

None of chemical maker DuPont's facilities, many of which are in the direct path of Hurricane Sandy in Delaware and New Jersey, were seriously damaged, according to spokeswoman Tara Stewart. Dow Chemical Co said it has already reopened one facility in Connecticut and one in Massachusetts.

(This version of the story has been corrected to fix final paragraph to show Dow Chemical, not DuPont, reopened facilities in Massachusetts, Connecticut)

(Reporting by Phil Wahba in New York and Jessica Wohl in Chicago; Additional reporting by Martinne Geller, Lynn Adler, Alison Frankel, Eileen Daspin, Liana Baker, Jennifer Saba, Sinead Carew and Ernest Scheyder in New York, Lisa Beartlein in Los Angeles, Brad Dorfman in Chicago, Toni Clarke in Boston, Ben Hirschler in London and Allison Martell in Toronto; Writing by Ben Berkowitz and Patricia Kranz; Editing by Matthew Lewis, David Gregorio and Alden Bentley)

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