As the Northeast cleans up from Hurricane Sandy’s destruction, produce distributors and retailers are working to return to normal operations.

Truck drivers encounter closed and flooded roads, detours, downed power lines and fuel rationing.

Like all other Tri-State region homes and businesses, supermarkets saw power outages and distributors say normal operations for the overall region may not return for up to 15 days after the Oct. 29-30 superstorm devastated parts of the New York metropolitan area and New Jersey.

Parsippany, N.J.-based Kings Super Markets Inc. initially lost power in 17 of its 25 New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut stores.

Paul Kneeland, vice president of produce, seafood and floral, said employees spent most of their time cleaning stores and discarding perishables and within three days returned to an 80% restocking rate.

The storm closed most Kings stores but some remained open providing firewood, water, peanut butter, bananas and other non-refrigerated items.

Kings stores ran on generators but came close to running out of fuel, Kneeland said.

“Our goal was to get stores open as quickly as possible to serve our communities with basic necessities,” he said Nov. 6. “From a community standpoint, it was important for us to keep our stores open. We did a lot of things that we were thinking would be necessary from what a hurricane victim would need. All our associates really jumped in.”

The storm disrupted wholesale distribution and Kneeland said his stores worked to time daily shipments to keep the pipeline filled.

Kneeland said he expects Kings stores to return to about 95% of operations by Nov. 8.

Joe Granata, director of produce for West Caldwell, N.J.-based RLB Food Distributors LP, said the hurricane caused many distribution and replenishment challenges.

“We just can’t get enough stuff back into the pipeline quick enough,” he said Nov. 7. “As fast as it’s coming in, it’s coming out as fast and the stores are putting it up fast. With another storm on top of it, everyone’s just panicking now. The customers are buying fast.”

Granata said many Tri-State area stores remain powered through generators but said his own home doesn’t have power.

He said the storm’s five-foot waves destroyed many Staten Island and Brooklyn stores.

Easy-to-eat produce, including bananas, grapes and clementines, remained in high demand.

Granata estimates 85% of his customers are back in operation, though said he damage prevents distribution to a Staten Island store and cites an Atlantic City, N.J., store that was destroyed.

As 45% of the region’s gas stations remain without power, Joel Panagakos, sales ambassador for J. Kings Foodservice Professionals Inc., Holtsville, N.Y., said the fuel disruptions prompted the distributor to abandon traditional delivery windows and save fuel by sending product on straight line deliveries.

The Long Island-based J. Kings also provided cold storage for hospital and healthcare institutional customers.

Expecting trouble with refrigeration, healthcare institution customers brought perishables to J. Kings’ warehouse ahead of the storm, and in early November, Panagakos said J. Kings was providing cold storage by parking 25% of its 85 delivery trucks at customers’ operations.

Panagakos said J. Kings also produced emergency meals, home meal replacements and box lunches for the Red Cross and area hospitals.

West Coast produce deliveries weren’t hampered and Panagakos said the distributor was able to deliver to most customers after the storm disrupted distribution during its first three days.

“The biggest concern is when you put all the effort into selecting, loading and delivering an order,” he said. “If someone isn’t there when you arrive, for whatever reason, you have to bring that order back and have all the work involved. We’ve been doing a lot of phone work with customers to make sure everything is good at their location before we ship. We’ve had storms but never to this extent.”

Panagakos said the storm flooded many areas of Long Island which remain without power and said soldiers are guarding the area to prevent looting.