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DollarDays veteran reflects on Hurricane Katrina

By: Jessica Urgiles-- 2015-08-27 10:20 pm --

This week marks the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Even a decade later, the statistics are staggering — it’s the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history. The natural disaster forever changed the lives of many Americans.

In 2005, Al Prosek was looking for a new adventure. He had recently left the grocery business after working as a food broker representing major manufacturers. Prosek recalls seeing an article about DollarDays, a then-new company, in a Phoenix newspaper.

“It seemed interesting because I had never really thought to do Internet sales. It was in the year 2005, so it was pretty much at the birth of the Internet business,” Prosek said.

Al Prosek at the DollarDays headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Originally, Prosek was to begin his DollarDays career on Aug. 29, the same day Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. However, his start date was rescheduled to Aug. 15. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this would not only change the course of his new career, but it would monumentally shape the future of the company.

When Katrina massively devastated the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed to rescue residents in a timely manner. Prosek, and the small sales team he joined, saw an influx of concerned nonprofit organizations calling DollarDays for emergency supplies to send to Louisiana — everything from clothing, shoes and food to flashlights, tents and hygiene products.

“It launched us into some interesting business that we had never had before because everyone was starving for everything,” he said. “Nonprofits were reaching out to us because the U.S. government couldn’t even get FEMA to move.”

Prosek says the weeks following Katrina’s destruction were a chaotic time at DollarDays. With only two weeks on  the job, he had to not only learn the business, but learn how to respond to an unprecedented national crisis — something the federal government was even struggling to do. There were also technological challenges to overcome, since the company simply wasn’t prepared to handle the volume of calls coming in.

“We weren’t used to that type of thing happening. Some of our systems weren’t as good as they are now, they’re excellent now because we’ve learned how to react,” he said.

 

With nebulousness setting in over the once vibrant city of New Orleans, phones were ringing nonstop with nonprofits that were determined to help.

“We started to feel the impact of, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to help these folks,’” he said.

And with that, Hurricane Katrina changed the heart of DollarDays. The relationship with the nonprofit sector, which now makes up nearly half of the company’s customers, was unexpected. Since then, a Give Back Program has been established, in which 5 percent of every order is donated to nonprofits. A Wish List Program has also been created to help nonprofits receive donations. And the commitment to nonprofits is most profoundly felt by the $5,000 monthly giveaways on Facebook to a range of worthy causes aimed to fundamentally enhance American communities.

Prosek is proud of the role he played in bringing relief to thousands of suffering people. A decade later, he says he still hears from a couple of people that called him 10 years ago looking to help Louisianans.

“It was a rewarding opportunity to have some of the same customers reach back, some even two or three years later, and some even now,” he said.

Prosek retired last December, but recently returned to DollarDays to help with the back-to-school season —  another event that has nonprofits from across the country calling to purchase supplies for those in need. It’s that giving spirit, and the company’s transformation he witnessed firsthand, that has Prosek promising he’ll be back again.

“It’s been 14 years since DollarDays has been around — that’s a lifetime in the Internet business, and that’s what makes it fun.”