Disaster-relief logistics has followed the same model for ages. Emergency teams assess the supplies they have on hand. They then procure the items that they need, after which they consolidate, pack and ship the supplies into the disaster zones. The process can take several days, time that could spell the difference between life and death for survivors of natural or man-made disasters.
For four years, Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) has been working on a better disaster-relief mouse trap, one that centered on having critical supplies at the ready when disasters strike. In June, it announced the opening of a 10,000-square-foot location near Atlanta, its first dedicated to storing and distributing emergency supplies typically needed at the front end of disaster relief efforts. The space holds more than half a million relief supplies that Amazon donated and then pre-positioned. The facility will back relief groups that work in the U.S. Southeast, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Central America.
Recently, Abe Diaz, whose formal title is senior technical program manager for the Disaster Relief by Amazon Team, had an email exchange with FreightWaves Senior Reporter Mark Solomon about the initiative, how it will proceed and whether it will impact the traditional role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are the boots on the ground in disaster areas.
FREIGHTWAVES: Amazon has been involved in disaster relief projects for several years, but more in a reactive way. What prompted you to take this latest step, which is aimed at proactively responding to disasters?
DIAZ: “We have been exploring similar concepts for a while and in fact supporting NGOs with smaller-scale pre-positioning efforts for a couple of years. In 2020, when the peak of the pandemic merged with hurricane season, we made a proactive decision to cut the time of response and the amount of employees needed to support large-scale disasters. The Disaster Relief Hub is one of the most efficient ways for us to do this.”
FREIGHTWAVES: What are your plans to broaden this effort? Do you plan to expand the operation to other areas of the country, or the world? And do you see teaming up with NGOs?
DIAZ: “As with anything at Amazon, we follow a process of launch, learn, iterate and expand. We want to gather the learnings from this year and use that to decide where and how to expand the program globally in terms of size and number of community partners.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Amazon has unmatched resources and enormous expertise in multiple areas. Are you in effect looking to usurp the roles of nonprofit and government organizations and perform these tasks yourself?
DIAZ: “We honestly couldn’t do this if it wasn’t for our disaster relief community partners and the incredible work they do. They are the ones on the front lines, and we are here to support them and our communities.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Will Amazon be using its own transportation assets to support this effort?
DIAZ: “We will be using Amazon’s scale in selection and logistics for this program. That includes our ground and air assets.”
FREIGHTWAVES: How much time can Amazon take out of the disaster-response process through this initiative?
DIAZ: “We can’t speak for other partners or the industry, but we expect to see a reduction of time in procurement and packing on our end of more than 75%. Delivery to a disaster location will depend on airport conditions and safety considerations; however, we will be ready to deploy relief supplies as soon as it is safe to do so.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Are there areas where Amazon can expand its disaster-relief efforts beyond what was recently announced? For example, do you see building dedicated facilities rather than utilizing space inside your existing network?
DIAZ: “The biggest opportunities for us are in sustainable disaster relief. One water filter can do the job of thousands of water bottles. Being mindful of the longevity of items and waste we are introducing to an island, for example, is something we pay close attention to.”
FREIGHTWAVES: How will you rotate inventory if there are no significant disasters to respond to?
DIAZ: “We worked with our community partners in advance to identify relief items that are always needed in disaster situations. We also focused on items without a short expiration date for a reason: That will help us cover at least two disaster seasons before replenishment comes into play. At the rate we have seen of disasters worldwide, we are confident these items will be put to good use before replenishment is needed.”
FREIGHTWAVES: How will Amazon measure the success of this initiative? Will there be specific metrics put into play to assess performance?
DIAZ: “We internally track the performance of all our programs. Disaster relief is no different. We track the speed and volume of donations and look at five years of data to make adjustments.”