Carrie Hungerford saw the look in the man’s eyes.
It was mid-March and Fremont and surrounding communities were deluged with historic flooding estimated to cost Nebraskans $1.3 billion.
Roughly a third of the associates at Fremont’s Walmart Supercenter were impacted by the flooding which caused widespread destruction.
Hungerford, the store manager, could see the disheartening effects just by looking into the face of an associate, who couldn’t get back to his house because of the flooding.
And who didn’t know what he’d find when he got there.
“Seeing the devastation in his eyes and the uncertainty of what he was going to face when he got back — made me cry,” she said.
Yet it was the resilience and teamwork Hungerford saw in her associates and the support of her company that encouraged the young store manager as she helped her crew navigate such turbulent times.
For their work, Hungerford and her store were presented with the Sam M. Walton Entrepreneur Award during a recent shareholders’ meeting.
Hungerford was honored for the flood recovery efforts and company information states that through her leadership, Fremont’s Walmart was able to:
- Led an effort with more than 50 area associates to help shop for people who had lost their homes.
- Secure financial assistance to help impacted associates get back on their feet.
- Facilitate major donations to the Red Cross, United Way and the local distribution center (Fremont City Auditorium).
- Restock the store, collect and deliver merchandise donations — and volunteer at organizations managing response efforts.
“It was an honor for my team to be recognized with the Sam M. Walton Entrepreneur Award,” Hungerford said. “When the floods hit Nebraska, we knew we had to help our community. It was amazing to see so many associates step up — despite their own hardships — to make a difference.”
Walmart employs 2.2 million associates around the world and 1.5 million in the United States alone.
The company’s website also states that about 75 percent of its store management teams began as hourly associates.
Such is the case with Hungerford.
Sixteen years ago, she started with Walmart as a cashier. She continued to get promotions, eventually becoming a co-manager.
Hungerford took the helm as manager of a store in Iowa in 2015.
And when a position opened at the Fremont store, she applied and has worked here as store manager since April 2018.
Hungerford never thought she’d be in a situation like the one caused by recent flooding.
“You can’t prepare yourself for something like this,” she said. “There is no preparation. You just kind of jump in and make sure they (the associates) are taken care of — because they’re my family.”
Flooding began on March 14 and 15, a Thursday and Friday, and continued into the weekend.
Initially, flood waters covered roads leading in and out of Fremont, making them impassable and turning the city into an island.
Hungerford, who lives in Bennington, wasn’t able to get into Fremont right away. But she stayed in contact with three members of management, who lived in the Fremont. She served as a co-between with the store and Walmart’s home office in Bentonville, Ark.
When she was able to get into Fremont on March 18 (a Monday), Hungerford saw empty store shelves.
She first went to check on her management team and associates.
“It kind of felt like the life had been sucked out of Fremont just a little bit,” she said.
Hungerford made it a priority to get trucks to Fremont as soon as possible so donations could be taken to Fremont City Auditorium, where they could be given to flood-affected people.
Walmart would make a $5,000 monetary donation and contribute almost $10,000 in merchandise during the week of the flood.
Using personal vehicles, Hungerford estimates about 15 truckloads were taken to the city auditorium.
“The trucks from the distribution center would come. We’d pull aside the essential needs — like pillows, air mattresses, blankets, toiletries — anything the donation center told us they needed, processed them and took them to the center,” she said.
Hungerford commends her Walmart market manager, Nathan Maerk, who oversees 10 stores in Omaha and Fremont.
“My market manager is fantastic,” she said. “He was right there by my side the entire time.”
Maerk would let her bring in 50 associates from the Omaha area to help get store shelves restocked since so many Fremont associates had been affected by the flooding.
Hungerford said, including herself there are 13 members of management, and 320 associates.
About 100 associates were impacted by the flood — whether that meant they had to evacuate from their homes or lived in towns outside of Fremont and couldn’t reach the city.
Facebook was used to connect with associates to make sure they were safe.
“We had many associates impacted with the floods,” Hungerford said. “We had several associates who lived on the southern part of town, who were evacuated that first day — some of them by airboat.”
The store provided toiletries and a couple days’ clothing for evacuated associates.
“We basically shopped with them and gave them any supplies they needed,” she said.
Walmart provided five hotels rooms for associates.
A personnel manager wasn’t allowed back into her house for several weeks. She didn’t lose everything, but there were electrical issues and basement damage and she was working with FEMA and her insurance agency.
“She worked every day during that time to help the store and the associates,” Hungerford said. “She is one strong woman. To be put through that much personally, but yet be there for her fellow associates who were going through the same thing is remarkable.”
A couple of associates lost everything. Many others lost furniture, items they had in their basements or outside.
Walmart has an Associate in Critical Needs Foundation.
“You can apply based on if there is a natural disaster or personal issues in your life so a lot of these associates applied for that,” she said.
Hungerford and her team worked with associates affected by the flooding.
“We were short probably over 100 associates for a week,” she said.
For several weeks after the flooding, impacted associates worked when they could. A couple associates had to take a leave of absence.
Hungerford has high praise for her management and associates.
“We all leaned on each other through this entire thing,” she said.
Hungerford would learn some things during this time.
“I learned that Walmart reacts very quickly in communities when natural disasters happen,” she said. “I also learned just how strong people can be and how much they’re willing to help others — even if they’re going through it themselves. The people who donated time at the donation center were going through the exact same thing themselves — and they were able to do that.”
Two days after seeing that devastated look in her associate’s eyes, Hungerford saw something else when the man found her and shared his good news.
His house was fine.
“He was so happy, because he got back in the house and the only thing he was worried about was that his grass was gone,” she said. “He was so grateful that was all he had to really focus on. Just seeing him being completely devastated to realizing it wasn’t as bad as he thought it was going to be — that made my week.”