As snowstorms barraged the Midwest and Northeast last week, relief groups used the lessons they learned from earlier disasters to support people impacted by the latest round of inclement weather.
When Hurricane Sandy beached in New York and New Jersey, it caught the American Red Cross by surprise and placed an immediate strain on disaster response. "We had been tracking the storm and had projected it to hit in Pennsylvania, so we pre-positioned our best disaster response units there," Chris Jordan, the organization's director of disaster relief logistics, told me. "Instead, Sandy hit hard in New York City and New Jersey, where we had disaster response teams on the ground, but not as much coverage as we would have liked."
Ground response units faced immediate challenges from infrastructure failures throughout Manhattan, he said.
During the first 72 hours of a disaster, we strive to supply cots, blankets, [personal] hygiene supplies, and all of the basics that you need for an initial disaster response. Mobile connections assisted us in learning from our people on the ground what our kitchens needed in order to start serving hot meals.
Satellite and Internet connections kept communications going, and eventually the American Red Cross began to contain the damage. For this humanitarian agency and others engaged in disaster relief and response, the message was only too clear: It might be easy to get the ball rolling to move supplies into an affected area, but understanding the last mile in the supply chain is another story.
That challenge is even more prominent in developing countries with poor or no infrastructure.
"The majority of disasters requiring international assistance have occurred in 15 countries in the last 20 years," Ilir Caushaj, head of the Zone Logistics Unit, Global Logistics Service-Americas, for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told me. Many of these countries are among the world's poorest, and relief workers can't count on the communications infrastructure in these countries.
To get needed supplies and services that final mile to a disaster site, many humanitarian aid organizations are establishing warehouses and supply depots in or near the regions likely to experience disasters. They are also training people in remote localities on the use of Internet-enabled mobile technology that can keep communication channels open during disasters.
"One of the satellite and Internet technologies we plan to expand use of is GPS," Paul Molinaro, supply manager for change and development at UNICEF, told me. "With GPS, we can not only track our people in the field through their mobile devices, but we can also increase the tracking and tracing of goods into the disaster zone."
The last-mile challenge is enormous. Caushaj described it this way.
The coordination of all of the actors during a disaster is often cited but seldom understood. In the immediate aftermath of a large disaster, there is usually a finite supply chain capacity into the disaster zone (i.e., x number of trucks/day, y number of planes, etc.). This capacity is often filled up with a mix of goods from actors who are bringing the same or the wrong items, and they don't have the capacity to distribute the goods in the last mile. What happens in effect is that the supply chain is not working to deliver items that are required and can be distributed. The "coordination" attempt on the ground is nothing more than marshalling of incoming goods and trying to get the most needed ones through the constrained pipeline, further impacted by this "noise." Examples of where this has happened include Haiti, the tsunami in Japan, and the earthquake in Pakistan.
GPS tracking, IP- and satellite-powered mobile communications, and cloud-based supply chain and logistics systems will certainly improve performance. But to get to the last mile in a humanitarian aid effort, commercial technology and supply chain thinking also need modification.
"Disaster response supply chains and technology solutions for the last mile can be extraordinarily complex, when what we really need are solutions that are less robust but more resilient," Molinaro said. "In other words, we need to balance just-in-time economics with just-in-case response."
— Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data