To be in Manhattan in the days following Hurricane Sandy was to be stranded on an island with no escape.

Hurricane Sandy, drug stores, David Pinto, Manhattan, Duane Reade, National Association of Chain Drug Stores, NACDS, pharmacy, chain drug retailing

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Inside This Issue - Opinion

Drug stores a line of defense against chaos

November 19th, 2012
by David Pinto

To be in Manhattan in the days following Hurricane Sandy was to be stranded on an island with no escape.

Bridges and tunnels to the neighboring boroughs, communities and states were closed — though reaching those destinations would have provided no respite. Bad as Manhattan was faring, the neighboring principalities were worse. Stories abounded about entire communities washed away, close-knit communities destroyed by fire, power outages that affected entire states, a way of life disappearing before our eyes, apparently forever, as beach communities saw their anchor attractions and most-dominant features washed into the Atlantic Ocean.

But Manhattan was different, in very important ways. This, after all, is the capital borough of the most important city in the world. The New York Knicks were scheduled to play their home opener at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, an event that, after some debate, was allowed to proceed, though the Nets’ regular season debut in Brooklyn the night before was postponed. The annual New York Marathon was scheduled to be run just a week after the storm but was cancelled two days before it was to occur. The annual and much-anticipated Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was only three weeks away.

At the end of November, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores was planning a weeklong series of activities in Manhattan, events that included a board of directors meeting and board and NACDS Foundation dinners. At presstime this series of activities, among the most significant of the year for NACDS, was still on the ­agenda.

Meanwhile, this is what Manhattan looked like in the days following Sandy: Fully a third of the borough, from lower midtown south to the Battery, was without power. Entire apartment buildings were dark, while the tenants within them had to make do without such basic services as telephone and heat. Indeed, even cell phones failed to work, their towers victims of the storm.

Traffic lights were dark throughout the southern third of the borough, with the result that traffic ran willy-nilly through the streets, sometimes guided by local officials who themselves had little idea of what directions to give and how and to whom to give them.

With no public transportation — subways and buses returned to service slowly, erratically and randomly — local residents tried hailing taxis, though they, too, were initially hard to come by. Often, walking became the most practical and productive means of transportation — though here, too, there was some danger, especially in crossing streets without the aid of traffic signals.

About the stores: In the areas without power, they were mostly shut. Which was probably just as well, since no deliveries could reach them in the locked-down borough. Even those retailers with power that remained open quickly ran out of goods. The more generous or kindly store proprietors organized makeshift charging stations outside their stores, giving passersby an opportunity to refresh computers and mobile phones that could not be charged at home.

Other retailers offered shoppers free coffee and sandwiches. Still others allowed passers-by to sit at tables within their stores to rest or charge their devices. What emerged during the week were many heart-warming stories of people helping their neighbors, shopkeepers assisting their customers, strangers offering aid to strangers — much the same as happens in the aftermath of any catastrophe, which this certainly was.

There were, unfortunately, also stories of people taking advantage of the situation — lootings, price-gougings, small cruelties, indifference — much the same as happens in the aftermath of any catastrophe.

While many retailers distinguished themselves throughout the week, one in particular deserves recognition. On Wednesday, October 31 — Halloween, an event that went largely ignored in Manhattan — the Duane Reade drug store at the corner of 28th Street and 7th Avenue was, in many ways, in an unenviable position geographically. Just one block south the borough was blacked out, yet, to all outward appearances, it was business as usual at the Duane Reade on 28th Street. For many in blacked-out Manhattan, the Duane Reade store was the first oasis for residents, the store that marked the transition from blackness to light.

Equally significant, as events would verify, it was a drug store — and so it offered more of the basic merchandise stunned consumers had need of than other retail outlets.

Not surprisingly, then, by 2:30 on the afternoon of the 31st, the drug store was jammed with customers. Most of them made small purchases — snacks, basic household items — though the pharmacy counter contained the store’s second-longest queue, as patients waited to refill prescriptions and solicit professional advice. The longer line was the one in front of the back of the checkstands. Well, not exactly in front — rather, it stretched from the front of the store all the way to the pharmacy counter in the rear. Most of the customers waited patiently for a checkstand to open, then conducted their business and left.

What was unique in all this was that it wasn’t unique. That was particularly true of the professional behavior of the staff. The three checkers on duty calmly and methodically summoned customers as their checkstands opened. Working diligently and deliberately, they served their customers as they were trained to do. Throughout the afternoon they did their jobs and, in so doing, acquitted themselves as they had been taught. Not surprisingly, the customers were neither pleased nor disappointed with the service. It was, after all, what they expected.

A final word: During the week of Hurricane Sandy, it was the borough’s drug stores that proved to be the most vital necessary retailers. Their emphasis on monitoring their patients’ health, their ability to dispense prescriptions and O-T-C medicines, their success in stocking those items that people most needed during and after a natural disaster, their willingness to remain open or get reopened more quickly than other retailers — these factors reinforced what people in chain drug retailing have known: Drug stores are a community’s first line of defense against chaos.