When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida Panhandle as a powerful Category 4 storm, Coca-Cola UNITED was ready.

The bottler, which has managed through several hurricanes in recent years, developed a detailed plan to keep its associates safe and its business running during and after the next storm.

“We wrote, tested and retested a process to be able to go ‘old school’ and operate without power for at least three days,” said Steve Wood, director of UNITED’s Sun Coast Division, which manages eight sales centers. “We trained all of our associates but hoped we’d never have to use it.”

They needed it sooner than expected. On Saturday, Oct. 6, Wood and a few of his sales center managers started texting each other about a disturbance brewing off the Yucatan Peninsula. By the next day, they realized UNITED’s territory was in Michael’s path. A direct hit was imminent.

“We knew we had about 48 hours to get ready,” Wood said. “Fortunately, all deliveries were already out, so our customers were taken care of and we could focus on shutting down and getting our associates either home or evacuated.”

A day later, all trucks were pulled off the roads. Some employees were able to evacuate to Atlanta or other cities. Michael was still a Category 3 hurricane at that point, so many UNITED associates opted to stay put and ride out the storm.

“As the storm was passing through Pensacola, I got a phone call from Paul Corbin, the sales center manager in Panama City, right before he lost cell reception,” Wood said. “It was one of most difficult conversations I’ve ever had because I could hear the fear in his voice. He said he’d thought about leaving with his family the night before but decided not to. He said he’d never stay again.”

The eye of the storm went right over the Panama City Sales Center. Wood made the 140-mile drive from his home in Pensacola to the facility. Roads leading in were barely passable due to downed powerlines, trees and other debris. Damage to the building and its inventory was significant. Cell service was down, so Wood traveled to a neighboring correctional facility to call his boss, Bo Taylor, from a satellite phone.

UNITED's Panama City Sales Center was out of commission for a full month following the storm. 

Within 24 hours, UNITED sent generators, trailers equipped with bathrooms, showers and temporary office space, and truckloads of food, clothing and essential supplies to the Panama City sales center. Employees and their families showed up to fuel their vehicles, receive counseling, collect cash payroll advances and simply connect with teammates. They could also fill out grant applications to both the Coca-Cola UNITED and Coca-Cola Company employee relief funds.

“All of this happened because of the business continuity plan we built earlier this year,” Wood said. “We’re at our best when we mobilize.”

Steve Wood (middle) and teammate Stephanie Bargaineer welcome Coca-Cola UNITED President and CEO John Sherman to Panama City in the days following the storm.

More than 3,000 Coca-Cola UNITED associates live in the path of Hurricane Michael. Fortunately, none were injured, yet several in Panama City, Sylvester, Bainbridge, Dothan, Valdosta, Tallahassee and Valparaiso suffered damage to – or total loss of – their homes. The Panama City Sales Center was out of commission for a full month. However, through great effort and teamwork, deliveries started to be delivered within three days. The warehouse is still undergoing repair. Read more.

A “buddy” network of UNITED associates from across the country showed up, 35 or 40 at a time, to pitch in any way they could. They brought chainsaws to clear trees from teammates’ yards and homes. They provided moral support. And they went above and beyond to service customers in the area, delivering products and merchandising local stores.

“In my 34 years with Coca-Cola, this has been the most difficult year I can remember,” Wood concluded. “But I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud to be part of our Coca-Cola family. This experience speaks volumes to the responsibility we all feel to help each other – not only our teammates but our customers and communities – in times of need. We know it’s the right thing to do.”