Retailers short on everything money can buy Demand high, supply low: Storm-driven panic buying and snow-blocked delivery routes leave Maryland stores struggling to make inventories catch up with the strong demand for all sorts of goods.

Blizzard Of 1996

January 11, 1996|By Jim Haner and Scott Higham | Jim Haner and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Suzanne Loudermilk and Dail Willis contributed to this article.

Trains, trucks and tractor trailers began rolling into Maryland yesterday loaded with everything from boots to bread and beer, restocking shelves laid bare by panic buying in the aftermath of the Blizzard of '96.

Throughout the region, retailers and distributors said yesterday that the avalanche of snow has left them short on everything money can buy by cutting off delivery routes for the past four days. And with more snow expected late today and tomorrow, it could be weeks before inventories catch up with demand.

"The freight terminals are jammed up and down the East Coast, so we have our own local delivery trucks going as far away as Pennsylvania to bring in anything we can get our hands on," said Dennis Kennedy, district manager for Home Depot, which has 10 stores in Maryland.

"I have stuff hitting the stores almost hourly. We roll the pallets in, open the boxes and the product is gone the next minute -- whether it's shovels, batteries or ice melt. Today, we're experiencing a run on sump pumps because people are worried about keeping their basements dry when all this stuff starts to melt."

Blood shortage

Linnea Anderson of the Red Cross said the region's blood supply had been low before the storm hit because of the federal government shutdown. Workplace donations by federal workers provide about 25 percent of the blood supply in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.

"Now, with our blood collection efforts nearly at a standstill for the past few days because of the snow, the shortage is severe," Ms. Anderson said. "We're down between 60 [percent] and 70 percent of the normal blood supply, with a one-day supply of O-negative. That's how serious it is."

Hospitals have been forced to cancel non-emergency procedures, she said, and local residents are being asked to call 1-800-GIVE-BLOOD to schedule a donation for next week.

After three days of being virtually shut down, Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland is rushing to get staples to the program's 1,550 elderly and homebound clients so they aren't caught without food as another winter storm nears.

"Many people have run out of emergency meals," said Robert J. Schap, executive director of Meals on Wheels.

Wherever people looked yesterday, the picture was the same. Long waits. Long lines. And short supplies.

At Hess Shoes' 22 stores in Baltimore and Washington, foul-weather inventories are falling fast. Trucks in major shoe manufacturing centers are snowbound, tying up deliveries all week.

With brisk sales before Christmas, coupled with a rush for boots because of the blizzard, Hess Shoes is selling out its stock of inexpensive rubber boots, and some consumers are shelling out big bucks for high-end Gortex-lined Timberlands.

"Anything that's waterproof is selling," said Tom Kane, vice president of operations.

At supermarkets around the state, managers are waiting for supplies while their customers -- frantic for food after a 3-day lock up -- are sweeping through the aisles, searching for eggs and bread, chicken and beef. But farms and bakeries are all snowed under and days behind on their deliveries.

"Our egg plant is 2 1/2 days behind," said Dan Hundertmark, manager of the Super Fresh in Eldersburg, which deals with a farm in Carlisle, Pa. "We haven't had eggs for the past 24 hours."

It's the same story down the dairy aisle. Milk deliveries come from Fort Washington, but trucks couldn't get to and from the plant. By noon Tuesday, the Super Fresh was out of milk. The store finally received a shipment yesterday morning.

Even on the Eastern Shore -- one of the chicken-growing capitals of the world -- not a breast, leg or wing could be found in the Giant store in Easton yesterday.

Threat of a beer drought

If the food shortage weren't bad enough, there's the fearsome specter of a beer drought to contend with.

Vernon Plack, sales manager for Bond Distributing in Southwest Baltimore, said beer wholesalers have been swamped with calls from bars and liquor stores drained by snowed-in workers with two unexpected days off.

"This is usually the slowest time of the year for us," he said. "But I'm looking at maybe moving 50,000 cases in the next 72 hours. Everybody is saying, 'Please send beer as fast as you can' -- especially the bars. They've just been wiped out by the walk-in trade."

Carol Newton, bartender at the Mount Royal Tavern in Bolton Hill, said, "We got empty kegs all over the basement. "We're out of National Premium Dark and Black Dog Ale. I mean, completely out. We got eight partial kegs left before we go to the bottles and cans. And after that I just hope the truck gets here soon."

Fuel of a different sort is also in big demand. Home heating-oil suppliers have been working around the clock since Sunday, filling oil and propane gas tanks for hungry burners.

At Warthen Fuel in Arbutus, managers have been running trucks 24 hours a day to keep regular customers stocked and to field 900 emergency calls from homeowners without delivery contracts. The biggest problem: reaching homes at the end of snow-choked roads and driveways.

The day of the blizzard, one customer called Warthen with a desperate plea. His burner was about to run dry. But the company's trucks couldn't make it to his Catonsville home.

Company President Donnie Warthen said he and one of his workers drove as far as they could, then walked about a quarter-mile to the house, each with a 10-gallon can of fuel oil.

"He should be OK until Friday," Mr. Warthen said -- when the next storm is expected to bury the region in another pile of snow.

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