Natural or man-made disasters are the ultimate challenge for logisticians. Preparedness is important, but it only goes so far. Disaster simulations can be run, re-run and run again. They are no doubt beneficial, but they can’t replicate the real thing when it strikes.
Because disasters don’t discriminate as to when and where they hit, logistics networks are often not optimally positioned to respond. The American logistics system is arguably the world’s most efficient and it is historically centralized. But the characteristics that hold the industry and American business in good stead during normal times can be impediments when it comes to disaster response.
Humanitarian logistics competes for scarce resources and short attention spans. Hurricane Michael, which ripped through the Florida Panhandle in October 2018 as the first Category 5 storm to hit the lower 48 states in 26 years, has been largely relegated to history. Areas like the small town of Mexico Beach, Florida, which was destroyed by the storm, remain in shambles. According to Kathy Fulton, executive director of the American Logistics Aid Network, an organization that connects groups on the ground at disaster areas with companies willing to provide logistics resources and support, the reason is that Michael didn’t damage regions with heavy business and commercial presence. Instead Michael hit an area that is top-heavy in tourism. Thus, there were no big companies with skin in the game that stepped up to help rebuild, she said.
That said, there are ways the humanitarian logistics network can position itself to respond faster and more effectively in the wake of a crisis. Unfortunately, innovation has not kept up with the need, which, even more unfortunately, often involves life-or-death.
Most technological advancements focus on improving different components of the existing system, and don’t contribute to a holistic look at how aid groups can work together to deliver, receive and distribute goods to people in need, said Jason Chernock, director of programs & partnerships for MedShare, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that collects, repackages and distributes surplus medical equipment to more than 100 countries. In addition, non-profit shipments have more touches and are more susceptible to the vagaries of volatile transportation markets.
Social media can be invaluable for exchanging real-time information, Chernock said. The “WhatsApp” app was the only way for MedShare volunteers to communicate during an arduous rescue mission in Nepal following an April 2015 earthquake that killed more than 9,000, Chernock said Wednesday at FreightWaves’ Transparency19 event in Atlanta. However, even an “excellent innovation” like social media doesn’t address broader issues that can hamper a rapid and effective response, he said.
Another problem area is the absence of outside experts that could maintain and update databases on how countries manage and process humanitarian aid, Chernock said. Each country has its own set of policies and regulations that NGOs dedicate time and resources to track, he said. The financial consequences for non-compliance are severe, he said. Outsourcing this function is “clearly something groups like ours would pay for, but most shippers we work with defer to others to figure it out,” he said.
For businesses, governments and NGOs alike, putting more emphasis on humanitarian logistics is time and money well spent, Chernock said. In a more socially conscious world, corporate brands win points by being more proactive to help people that Mother Nature has pushed up against the wall, he said. Then there’s the larger issue – for every moment of increased efficiency, the odds increase that a life or lives may be saved.