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Imagine waking up one morning and expecting to have a typical day at the office. Only, when you get there, your logistics infrastructure is in shambles, you have little information to work with, and required resources are scarce. The only sense of normalcy is the phones ringing incessantly. Your decimated staff is frantically trying to maintain some semblance of control and service to those on the phone. What will you do?

Unfortunately, this is not just a hypothetical situation. It’s taking place right before our eyes as the global media provides us with an up close view of a massive disaster and subsequent relief efforts In Haiti. The impact of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12, 2010 inflicted severe damage and casualties in Port-Au-Prince, the country’s capital, and surrounding cities. UPI reports that the earthquake left 250,000 injured and 1.5 million homeless in addition to the estimated 200,000 killed in the disaster.

So, what exactly does this have to do with logistics? Everything. Logistics is both the solution and the Achilles heel in the global effort to provide Haiti with rescue, relief, and recovery services (the Three Rs).

On the positive side, it is the logisticians who facilitate the execution of the Three Rs. All of the monetary donations for disaster assistance must be converted into needed supplies and delivered to the areas in need. Speed is of the essence, capacity is desperately needed, and, supply chain flexibility is imperative. Fortunately, logisticians understand these concepts and can quickly spring into action. We’ve already seen countless governments, military units, and relief organizations respond quickly. These humanitarian logistics efforts seek to alleviate the suffering of vulnerable people in Haiti.

 On the other hand, logistics disaster relief is extremely challenging. Humanitarian logistics is a far different animal than commercial logistics as the table highlights. And the current need is huge. If you tried to give each homeless person in Haiti a one liter bottle of water each day, it would require a daily delivery of 77 twenty-foot containers.1  That doesn’t factor in food, medical supplies, or any other basic necessities.

Unfortunately, we often fail to forget these basic realities when the media pundits are passionately imploring the world to act more quickly and speed the flow of goods. We must remember that what is morally imperative is physically challenging and time consuming. This is especially true in the current situation, given the scale of the situation in Haiti and the bottlenecks created by the already inadequate and now-damaged logistics network.

 That’s not to say that logisticians should view the current situation as unsolvable. We may not be able to address the problems with a single, common solution but we can break the situation down into smaller scale operations and develop creative solutions. In recent days, I have read about Royal Caribbean International delivering relief supplies on cruise ships visiting Labadee on the north shore of Haiti. The U.S. Air Force is airdropping packaged meals and water into Port-Au-Prince. And, the American Red Cross is using the Dominican Republic as their entry point, and then trucking supplies to Haiti. Other keys to success are collaboration and coordination of these efforts. There is no time for squabbling over control.

So what can we do individually in this crisis and other disaster situations? Here are a few ideas…
  1. Open your wallet. This is the most immediate and most effective step we can take to make an impact on the situation.
  2. Develop humanitarian logistics knowledge. I’m guilty (as many of you probably are) of being a “Monday morning quarterback” and expressing my opinion on how to provide better, faster relief. I’d be better off learning about the challenges and issues before I speak. For example, I could read Humanitarian Logistics by Rolando Tomasini and Luk van Wassenhove or Logistics in Support of Logistics in Support of Disaster Relief by James Henderson.
  3. Get engaged individually or as an organization. With our knowledge of logistics and an appreciation of humanitarian relief challenges, our skills will be needed in many different situations. Many non-profit humanitarian relief organizations seek the assistance of talented logisticians and company resources. A few of the many options include:
Remember it’s up to logisticians and supply chain experts to convert donations into timely relief. As an Irish Times article recently stated:  “The importance of logistics to humanitarian response cannot be ignored. Without the rapid establishment of supply and distribution channels for aid resources, the disaster will certainly be more protracted and damaging for the affected population.”

1 Approximate estimate assumes a 1,172 ft3 capacity TEU and a 12.5x10x10 inch case containing 12 1-liter bottles and weighing 28 pounds.

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