NEW YORK -- It's the not-so-quiet before the storm.
Hurricane Irene hasn't hit the East Coast yet, but people up and down the Eastern Seaboard already are crowding hardware stores, grocers and big-box retailers like Home Depot and Walmart to pick up $599 generators, bottled water and flashlights in preparation for the hurricane, which is expected to make landfall by Saturday.
At Ace Hardware in Elizabeth City, N.C., near where the hurricane is expected to land, business on Thursday was triple what it is normally on that day. With the lines at Home Depot in Kitty Hawk, N.C., you would think the store was having a big sale. And an Ace Hardware in Nags Head, N.C., sold out of portable generators on Thursday.
"It's always like this just before a storm," said John Robbins, an employee at the Nags Head store. "With everyone saying this is going to be a bad one, no one is leaving anything to chance."
Some retailers are getting a boost in business, but extreme weather like earthquakes and hurricanes are damaging to the retail sector as a whole. And this one is coming in the thick of the critical back-to-school shopping weekend, a time when some merchants make up to 25 percent of their annual revenue. In fact, weather research firm Planalytics estimates that Irene will stop 80 million shoppers from hitting the malls this weekend. At the same time, demand for hurricane-related supplies is giving some retailers a boost that's expected to continue as people deal with the cleanup in its aftermath.
"It's unlike anything we've seen in the modern era," said Scott Bernhardt, Planalytics COO.
Preparing for the demand is a balancing act for retailers. Many retailers have plans in place to handle emergencies, which includes adding shipments. Some stores have extended their hours to be open all day every day during the hurricane
The top two U.S. home improvement stores, Home Depot and Lowe's Inc., which both have disaster teams to deal with logistics during hurricanes and other emergencies, said they are working hard to supply their stores with items that are needed during and after the hurricane. That includes things like generators, batteries and flashlights.
Home Depot's emergency preparedness team started working this weekend with its stores in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which have already been hit by Irene. By Thursday morning, Home Depot had 300 trucks out supplying its East Coast stores with products that are in demand, like generators.
"The team is working closely around the clock to replenish those," said Steve Holmes, Home Depot senior manager of corporate communications.
By Thursday afternoon, Lowe's said it had sent out more than 500 trucks so that stores could quickly be restocked of hurricane-related items, including cleaning chemicals, mops, brooms, sump pumps, wet/dry vacuums. "Because of the recent flooding in the Northeast, we have a strong focus there on cleanup supplies for more potential flooding," said Katherine Cody, a Lowe's spokeswoman.
Mark Cooper, senior director of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s emergency management team, said the world's biggest retailer is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to ensure that stores have all the items on a list for emergency preparedness kits. The list, which is on www.ready.gov, includes batteries and cleaning supplies. Wal-Mart's team also is monitoring stores along evacuation routes particularly closely.
"We've been activated since last week since this started. We're pretty much monitoring and coordinating on a regular basis as Irene is moving up the East Coast," said Cooper, who added that the retailer is replenishing less obvious products like air mattresses.
Grocers also are having to continuously stock up, particularly on bottled water, nonperishables, dry ice and charcoal. Kroger, the nation's largest grocer, said it expects strong sales because of the hurricane.
"Our stores are busy," said Keith Dailey, a Kroger spokesman. "Customers are purchasing everything from canned goods to milk and beer."
Close to Irene's expected landfall, some grocers were so busy that they didn't even have time to give specifics about just how busy they are. "I've got a line of people out the door. I don't have time to talk. Have a good day," said a worker who answered the phone on Thursday at Weeksville Grocery in Elizabeth City, N.C.
Indeed, as the storm inches closer, stores across the Outer Banks in North Carolina were particularly busy as people rushed to pick up supplies to prepare for the hurricane after emergency officials expanded evacuation orders to include hundreds of thousands of tourists and locals in the region.
The Ace Hardware in Elizabeth City is selling a lot of Coleman stove fuel, electric lanterns, sandbags, charcoal, batteries and pure oil, which is used for old-fashioned kerosene lamps that are popular in low-income areas. Sales are so strong that Dorran Hulse, the store's manager, said he had to order an additional shipment of hurricane-related items.
"As soon as we did it, people came in and bought items," he said. "We were telling them what time the truck was going to be in and people were here waiting for it."
At an Ace Hardware in Nags Head, a shelf that was filled with sandbags looked like a carcass. Rick Tholen, an employee at the store, pointed to the empty shelf and said: "That's where we had sandbags ... I think we sold about 500 bags."
In Kitty Hawk, there were unusually long lines at the Home Depot, which displayed several pallets of 5,000-watt portable generators for $599 -- enough to keep the power going in a house. Matt Jones, 33, of Nags Head, bought plywood and several flashlights and batteries. But he didn't spring for the generator because he said it's too expensive.
"I'm not sure if I'm going to leave my house yet," said Jones, who works as a handyman. "But if I stay, I'll use my flashlights and candles. It's a lot cheaper."
Jim Rogers, 52, of Kitty Hawk, was loading plywood into the back of his pickup truck outside of Home Depot. Inside his truck, he had a tarp and rope to use to cover and tie down his patio furniture.
"They had everything I needed," said Rogers, who plans to evacuate after securing him house. "Everyone is just trying to protect their homes."
Mitch Weiss in North Carolina contributed to this report.