Plywood Sales Up Ahead of Isabel

Americans on the East Coast rushed to stock up on plywood, plastic and other building materials Monday as Hurricane Isabel (search) swirled toward the eastern United States.

Home-goods chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Home Depot Inc. (HD), reported strong sales of wood, generators and food from the Carolinas to Maine as wary consumers braced for one of the Atlantic's most powerful hurricanes in recent memory.

"We're seeing some pretty good spikes" in sales of batteries, flashlights, generators, plywood, bottled water, plastic sheeting and duct tape, with "a very large run in North Carolina," said Paula Erickson, a spokeswoman for building materials seller Ace Hardware.

Isabel weakened slightly Monday to winds of 140 mph and slowed its forward speed on a path that could cause it to hit land around Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Thursday.

The storm threatens to affect some of the most heavily populated areas of the eastern United States, including Richmond, Virginia, Washington, Philadelphia and parts of New Jersey.

Home Depot, the largest U.S. retailer of lumber, said it started shipping wood to its stores along the East Coast more than a week-and-a-half ago to prepare for an increase in demand as hurricane-wary homeowners board up their windows and doors.

"We've been following the storm all the way north and loading our stores up with plywood," said Ron Jarvis, vice president for lumber at Atlanta-based Home Depot. Over the past two days, the retailer sent "probably 100 trucks into coastal North and South Carolina and today started shipping into the Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and New Jersey markets," he said.

To aid consumers, Jarvis said Home Depot last week froze lumber prices at its stores along the eastern seaboard. He said plywood prices have risen since April due to supply and demand issues, and that Home Depot's wood costs were now up "over 100 percent."

Lowe's Cos. (LOW) has also frozen its lumber prices in coastal areas from Florida to Maine so that consumers in the path of Hurricane Isabel will not be burdened with price increases.

"We have so far been able to get plenty of plywood for our customers and we are continuing to source additional products," said Lowe's spokeswoman Chris Ahearn.

Grocery stores along North Carolina's coast said shoppers were picking up canned meat, candles, charcoal, juice and other nonperishable food items.

"People have a wait-and-see attitude because they know there's another day" to shop before Isabel approaches land, said John Sorensen, store manager at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Riegelwood, North Carolina, which is about 20 miles from the coastal city of Wilmington.

"We'll be swamped all night tonight and all day tomorrow," Sorenson said.