There are many interesting and tragic aspects to the earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath. From the operational side, the disaster highlights the importance of one of the emerging sub-fields of “humanitarian logistics”.
Both the BBC (“Haiti earthquake maps“) and the Wall Street Journal (“Aid Efforts Face Obstacles in Quake-Ravaged Capital“) devoted articles to the issue documenting the overwhelming logistical tasks presented with the rescuers.
Military and aid groups began to encounter huge obstacles getting relief into the country, less than two days after the earthquake killed an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people. U.S. military specialists reestablished communications at the Port-au-Prince airport, but a lack of fuel and a crammed tarmac prompted the Haitian government to halt incoming flights. While one airport runway was usable, air-traffic control was limited, able to handle only four aircraft at a time, logistics companies said.
The quake also damaged Haiti’s main port in Port-au-Prince. The port has “collapsed and is not operational,” said Maersk Line’s Mary Ann Kotlarich.
The disarray at the port stands to be a major obstacle to the relief effort, as the U.S. Navy and other ships carrying supplies have nowhere to dock. Numerous maritime companies are trying to devise stop-gap solutions, but nothing is in place yet.
From a purely operational point of view (and while abstracting from the specific case), the problem is not very different from any regular operational one: the main challenges are limited resources and coordination of the (relief) efforts. In the case of Haiti the significant damage to the infrastructure hampers the ability to deliver supplies, where the airports became bottlenecks that are causing delays in the ability to respond to the different needs. The lack of communication is also attributed to the collapse of this type of infrastructure, which hindered the ability to coordinate among the different relief effort groups:
There have been a lot of criticism from local authorities about the relief efforts, but in all fairness, if we could catch a break and get some communication up and running, things would go a lot faster,”
What can be done? In a recent podcast (Haiti: Humanitarian Logistics) Prof. Pinar Keskinocak and Prof. Julie Swann discuss what can be done. According to their opinion, managing the relief supply chain is not very different (in certain aspects, of course,) from managing a product supply chain – everything begins with understanding the demand, and understanding the political and social conditions. In this case, it means assessing the needs of the people in the different locations.
What could have been done? There is a long list of things a country should do to prepare for such disasters (or lower magnitude ones), but I will not get to these. The one highlighted by Pinar and Julie that is of particular interest (at least for this blog) is the pre-positioning of inventory of relief supplies in areas that are more prone to such disasters to reduce the lead-time between the disaster and the rescue response. Of course, these will only suffice for a short amount of time in case of an earthquake of such magnitude, but it is something to think about. We usually discuss pooling of inventory, but this seems to be a case where spreading inventory makes a lot of sense.