Disaster relief logistics: some critical points to take care of

Disaster relief logistics: some critical points to take care of

Disasters come in many ways and shapes. It could be an earthquake in the ocean or inland, or it could be a drought in very dry countries, or it could be hurricanes and typhoons in coastal regions or very remote areas that are hit by flooding and landslides. When any type of disaster occurs, there are many agencies ready to respond as soon as they can.  Most of these agencies or companies offer financial aid –which is the easy part- and they contribute to campaigns that generate awareness and can collect funds

But the real deal comes when we are talking about distribution and logistics of physical goods. This is the proper definition of “managing a supply chain under desperate conditions.”

After suffering many earthquakes and many other social and political problems, Haiti had enough and in the year 2010 when an earthquake hit and killed more than 230,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless, the agencies and the governments realized that something had to be done and fast.  

After this disaster that showed the world the good part and the bad part of disaster relief logistics, some principles could be identified:  there has to be a clear chain of command and levels of authority;  complexity has to be tackled and reduced in order to have a better grasp of the situation; last mile logistics is the topic that has to be watched carefully;   supply and demand synchronization is very important; offers and donations can be a very good help but can also be a burden; intelligence about terrain and access is of most importance and  talent within the local areas can be of great help.

Let’s take a look at some of these topics and how they work within the logistics of disaster relief.

One of the most important parts of the whole logistics operation for disaster relief is the last mile strategy. While medicine and food are pouring to the affected area, many of the distribution centers could be destroyed or useless and many of the roads destroyed, so there could be a big loss of these products due to workers caring for victims and not having a correct reception and distribution.  In Haiti for example, the lesson was that while many volunteers were focused on saving lives nobody was managing the inventory, and there was no track of medicine and supplies for the people that were heavily affected.  So after the effort to save as many lives as possible, they faced the chaotic struggle of building distribution centers and managing all the items that were arriving when it was too late. Some medicine had gone to waste and food supplies were heavily contaminated.

Image courtesy of Michael B. at Flickr.com

Supply and demand have to have a perfect harmony. Try to imagine a store where dairy products arrive with no schedule whatsoever.  These products go to waste if they sit at stores and fridges. The same happens in disaster relief. If the amount of products that are in demand is not clear, the shipments could not cover the whole population; on the other hand, if there is no warehouse, products need to be received and distributed immediately, and that poses another problem. Also, the periodicity of the shipments becomes of most importance so critical medicine and food don’t go to waste or is lost among the tons of aid that arrive at the centers.  Having Haiti as an example again, managers from clinics all over the country had to send a request for aid. These requests were then sent to staff people that had the information of the planes coming in and out with supplies and they then, in turn, distributed everything in perfect harmony so all the products were 90% of the times available.

Another part of these logistics that need to be watched very carefully are the relationships among the humanitarian agencies that are working for the people. In many cases, NGO agendas, a different interpretation of policies, and competition for donors and funding can all be a great obstacle for relief strategies. When all the agencies, including 3PLs, are in the same page the effort for disaster relief becomes effective, not easy, but very effective.  

A good example of this is that UPS and TNT have rapid response Logistics Emergency Teams or LETS. These teams are in charge of managing logistics or being present at the site so everything runs smoothly. Their knowledge is very important so the supply chain works perfectly to form the begging of the relief strategy.  These teams have been involved in more than 30 emergency response operations giving them the experience they need to tackle almost any disaster relief operation.

These critical milestones in any disaster relief operation have to be carefully managed so products and medicines don’t go to waste and there is not a shortage of aid. It is a good thing that volunteers and big companies are all in to help and to be part of the strategy.

Be sure to also read this post to see if logistics and SCM are the same thing?.

* Featured Image courtesy of raymondclarkeimages at Flickr.com


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