Watch Now

Infrastructure destruction stymies logistics for Bahamas relief

Heart to Heart and Team Rubicon assist with evacuation of critically ill man. [Image: Heart to Heart]

Hurricane Dorian’s devastation of Grand Bahamas Island and the Abaco Islands  is so widespread that logistics providers lack basic infrastructure to deliver relief supplies, leading many shipments of food and other products to go to waste.

Prioritizing what resources are needed and coordinating government and private sector shipments is challenging after any natural disaster, but the island location and destruction underscore the need for capable logistics management.

In the chaos after such a disaster, coordination is difficult because there is no command-and-control as there would be in a normal business supply chain. Aid agencies often operate on their own as fast as they can.

The proximity of the Caribbean islands to the U.S. means small groups can reach them with general aviation aircraft, adding to the coordination challenge, Steve Smith, the CEO of Airlink, told FreightWaves.

“Oftentimes, it’s very difficult to keep track of the early cargo that is coming in” and match it up with peoples’ needs, he said, after spending four days this week in the Bahamas working with relief groups. 

NBC News reported that humanitarian aid is sitting on the docks on Great Abaco Island, with eggs spoiling in the sun, because no one is around to use it, having been evacuated or killed in the storm. 

But in the relief world, efficiency has to be balanced against speed.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” said Smith, whose organization facilitates connections between air carriers donating flights and the aid community to move relief workers and cargo to disaster sites.

Aid groups are trying to deliver items from a list of the most-needed supplies compiled by the U.S.-based National Emergency Management Association, and requests from local groups on the ground, Christy Delafield, director of communications for Mercy Corps, said in an interview with National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Distribution on the ground has been very challenging. The islands are quite big, the roads are damaged, and a significant bridge was washed away, Smith said.

“Anywhere that we could put a warehouse has been destroyed by floodwaters and may not be safe for storing supplies. Communications are down. Electricity is down,” Delafield said. “Any of the things that you would normally do in a response are going to be 10 times harder because the systems that would support them don’t exist anymore.”

In addition to typical relief supplies, the aid agency is bringing in solar lanterns for light. The lanterns also have phone chargers that allow relief workers to communicate.

Airlink coordinated one flight with Air Canada to move a shipment of supplies, but most of its efforts have involved flying aid workers into Nassau or places such as Miami where they can catch another flight to the Bahamas, Smith said. Airlines who are assisting the effort are JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, British Airways, United Airlines and Alaska Airlines.

The airlines are providing two-way transportation because humanitarian groups also have to rotate personnel back to the U.S. for rest, and their services will be needed for a long time.

“Different non-governmental organizations do different things, so therefore they will arrive at different times. Some go in very early for search and rescue, some do shelter work, some do water sanitation and hygiene,” Smith said. “Some will go in now, others in the coming days and weeks for the rebuild phase of the response.”

While Airlink and Lift Non-Profit Logistics focus on finding air and ocean capacity, the American Logistics Aid Network and its partners are focusing on helping get supplies to U.S. ports and airports, or finding places to store items that will be used later, Executive Director Kathy Fulton said in an email message to supporters.

Meanwhile, MSC Group, whose subsidiaries include the world’s second largest container line and a cruise line, organized donations from the maritime industry to fill two shipping containers in Charleston, South Carolina, with gas generators, tarps, gas cans, canopy tents, power cords, extension cords, batteries, water, toiletries, baby wipes, diapers, cleaning supplies and other items, according to the South Carolina Ports Authority. The containers were transported by land to Port Everglades in South Florida, and loaded on a vessel that arrived at Port Freeport Tuesday morning.

MSC Cargo runs the Freeport terminal as a major transshipment hub through a joint venture with Hutchison Ports.

Amazon is also organizing two Amazon Air flights with tens of thousands of curated relief items for relief groups. Customers can shop on Amazon’s website and donate supplies for the shipments. Amazon said it is shipping relief supplies from fulfillment centers around the country to a warehouse in Tampa, Florida, where they will be packed, palletized, and transported to the airport for delivery to Nassau.

And if things aren’t bad enough in the North Bahamas, another storm could hit the area this weekend, potentially dropping several inches of rain, according to the latest forecasts.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]