Cooper brings public-sector experience to the private sector.
Some said it was ironic that Bryan Koon left Wal-Mart to direct the Florida Division of Emergency Management. But for reasons outlined above, it was a good fit. As equally fitting is Mark Cooper taking over Koon’s position at Wal-Mart after heading emergency management for Louisiana.
Both bring a lot to the table from their experiences and both seek to increase public-private relationships. It’s a need that’s taken hold over the last several years, especially after Hurricane Katrina when the private sector came to the rescue.
Wal-Mart was one of the private entities lauded after Hurricane Katrina for its ability to provide supplies, like water, to communities in need and also for its knowledge of supply chains and infrastructure.
“The private-sector support during Katrina and FEMA was important,” Cooper said. “With Fugate coming in and putting an increased emphasis on that part with his whole community concept, the private sector is going to play more of a role.”
When Cooper joined Wal-Mart last year, he brought his extensive experience in the public sector, including acting as Louisiana emergency management director during hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and the BP oil spill. He also spent years in Los Angeles County during wildfires, the Northridge earthquake and Los Angeles riots.
“It’s benefited me knowing the needs at the state and local levels,” he said. “When I accepted the job with Gov. [Bobby] Jindal in Louisiana, one thing we discussed was the role of the private sector and how they helped during Katrina.”
Cooper and Jindal responded to Hurricane Gustav by creating a Business Emergency Operations Center (BEOC), giving the private sector an easier way to help during the crisis.
“We had people dedicated to major private-sector organizations like Wal-Mart and others to provide assistance during Gustav,” he said. “That evolved into what Louisiana has today, the BEOC, a stand-alone, integrated program that supports the state during disasters.”
The BEOC allows more than 30 private-sector representatives to collaborate with one another and government when there’s a disaster. Trade associations represent businesses and communicate with those businesses and with government during times of need.
Another benefit is that the private sector can provide supplies more effectively and cheaply than government can. During Gustav, food distribution was critical. Instead of waiting for Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) from the government, the state enlisted the Louisiana Restaurant Association, which helped establish mobile food kitchens to feed affected citizens.
“The average cost of those meals was around $4.50 versus the MRE cost, which was $8, so we saved about $1.7 million,” Cooper said. “It also infused dollars back into the community versus sending them to D.C. to pay for the MREs, so it had a major economic impact.”
Cooper said Wal-Mart has a vested interest in being able to respond quickly and efficiently during a disaster, and that positively impacts communities. Keeping its stores running is not only crucial for business, it also provides the community with valuable resources.
“We’re the largest retailer in the world and those associates live in the communities that are impacted by the disasters, so we have an interest in bringing their lives back online during a disaster. When we’re trying to bring those stores back online and working with federal, state and local officials in identifying issues, we’re making those communities more resilient.”