Helping Hand: The Logistics of Disaster Relief

Last year’s hurricane season dealt a devastating blow to Texas, Florida and, most notably, Puerto Rico. Recovery efforts are still continuing, and will be for a long time.

But in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, ensuring that critical supplies reach affected populations is paramount. Food, water, medicine and other life-sustaining materials must be quickly transported, stored and distributed so as to do the most good. But how?

The Logistics Hurdle

In disaster relief operations, logistics is often the biggest hurdle. In fact, as much as 80 percent of disaster relief costs go toward transporting, warehousing, and distributing goods and services to affected communities.

It takes a coordinated effort between government agencies (such as FEMA), charitable organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), disaster recovery companies and 3PLs. All these entities must mobilize behind the scenes to provide the necessary materials and help jump-start rescue and recovery operations.

And a clear organizational structure is critical for making decisions under extreme conditions. Without it, chaos quickly ensues.

For instance, right after Hurricane Katrina, there was simply no system in place to handle a relief effort of that magnitude, according to relief providers.  Shopping center parking lots were crowded with unneeded donated clothing, while essential shipping and handling services were scarce. As a result, many donated items never reached those most in need.

In an effort to prevent future logistical disasters such as those following Katrina, the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) was created. ALAN uses a web portal to match supply-chain businesses with relief agencies per their specifically stated needs. The businesses can simply browse the agency needs list and determine where they can help.

ALAN’s disaster relief work is built on strong relationships among supply-chain businesses, relief organizations, and governments.

That Challenging Last Mile

When managing a supply chain under desperate conditions, the greatest logistics challenge is the notorious “last mile.”

Flooded roadways… devastated distribution centers… disabled communications.. Often all of these converge in the last mile of a relief effort. Critical medicine can be shipped thousands of miles only to spoil in the sun as relief workers tend to victims.

 

Frank Clary is a project director at global logistics provider Agility. He knows just how challenging that last mile can be. In his view, 3PLs are just one resource in the disaster relief tool kit – and not even the most important one. Clary has seen NGOs and voluntary organizations active in disaster (known as “VOADs”) perform feats that hardly seem possible. Under the worst possible conditions these organizations not only establish logistics, but also create medical and food relief infrastructure — within days.

“We couldn’t do it, but humanitarian aid groups do it all the time,” Clary said. “We learn a lot from them.”

Increasingly, Agility, ALAN, UPS and other logistics providers are utilizing new technologies to transform a once-grueling, labor-intensive process into something resembling a modern-day global supply chain.

Technological Advances

Here are just a few of the technological advances that are being utilized for disaster relief:

Demand Analysis.  Big Data is being used to model the demand for food, water, medicine and other necessities following a natural disaster. Using historical data from Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Warehouse Management System (WMS) and other supply chain management systems relief providers can incorporate the most likely scenarios.

Inventory control and management.  During the uncertainty of natural disasters, providers are relying on warehouse management software to maintain adequate inventory levels.  In many cases, inventory can be pre-positioned in locations close to potentially affected areas.  A comprehensive WMS provides enterprise-wide visibility for full inventory management across all facilities where goods are stored.

Continual communication.  Industrial-grade rugged mobile computers are used to empower relief agencies to share vital information in real time.  As a result, goods and assets arrive at the required location much faster.  Mobile computers also are used to document damage and human safety issues through photographs and video.  Most of these also include GPS tracking, another great safety feature for pinpointing and communicating information about affected areas in times of crises.

In addition, relief providers often use barcodes and scanners to streamline the data collection process, saving time and improving the accuracy of information needed by all parties. When communication systems fail, coordination and collaboration also often fail, as explained in the following video clip:

 


Sources:

Journal of Commerce

American Logistics Aid Network

Datex Corp

McKinsey & Company