Retailers in the South experienced serious damage to many stores and were still trying to communicate with some associates late Thursday in the wake of the killer tornadoes that swept through six states Wednesday, which, according to reports at press time, had left 250 to 300 people dead.

This story first appeared in the April 29, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Rescue crews were pulling people out of the rubble of devastated neighborhoods, with most of the destruction occurring in Alabama, particularly Tuscaloosa.

One off-duty Belk Inc. associate was reported killed and the company was attempting to reach 20 to 30 others late Thursday afternoon, according to spokesman Ralph Pitts. Power outages and downed phone systems are making communications difficult.

Belk’s women’s store in the University Mall in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was severely damaged, with a tornado, said to be almost a mile wide, ripping off parts of the roof and tearing a hole in an exterior wall. Belk’s men’s store in the same mall was not damaged. “We are hoping to get the store back open within a week, maybe by Saturday,” Pitts said. Seven or eight other Belk stores experienced power outages. Some are expected to regain power soon, but it could take days for others, Pitts noted.

He added it was too soon to quantify the damage or the impact on business. Expected flooding could compound problems.

“We are responding to the needs of our associates through the Good Neighbor Fund,” a charity run by Belk associates to provide relief in times of emergency, Pitts said. Belk is also donating $200,000 to the Red Cross to help areas where Belk stores operate. Belk operates 304 stores in the South.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said 27 facilities, mainly SuperCenters and discount stores in northern Alabama, remained closed on Thursday evening. There were no reports of injuries or deaths to associates, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said, adding it was not known how long the stores would remain closed. “We’re assessing the damage,” she said. “Most of it appears to be due to power outages.”

A spokeswoman for Houston-based Stage Stores Inc. said several stores were affected by the storms but with the electricity out in many areas, the executives were uncertain how many had to be closed. Stage operates 796 stores in 39 states under the Bealls, Goody’s, Palais Royal, Peebles and Stage names. The vast majority are in the South.

Macy’s Inc. also said it had some power outages, but no injuries or physical damage.

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