Archive for December, 2012

By Julia Moline

A few days after Superstorm Sandy struck New York, a call came into the city’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) that a woman was on her way into the city with an 18-wheeler full of donations from her church group. She needed to know where to bring her haul.

This wonderful and well-intentioned gesture created a big challenge for OEM. First, wind damage, debris, and transit issues had resulted in massive traffic congestion. Second, there was no clear place to bring large quantities of donations—warehouse space was in short supply. Third, there were no trained people available to sort the donations and bring them to afflicted populations.

After a catastrophic disaster, people want to do something to help. It’s only natural—how can you sit at home and watch story after story of families who lost everything without wanting to, well, do something? So people text to donate $10, celebrities host telethons, and…community groups organize drives. And that’s where things get complicated.

When a disaster strikes on as large a scale as Sandy, it is incredibly challenging just to figure out three basic logistics questions:

  1. What do the organizations responding, sheltering, and canvassing need?
  2. Who has what these organizations need?
  3. How are those resources going to be transported from the donor to the recipient?

To have any kind of timely response, it is imperative that these transactions be conducted in understandable units, for instance pallets, containers, or truckloads. If I know that a shelter needs five pallets of water, I can get them five  pallets of water and know that their need has been met; but if I start sending them one case or a few cases at a time, it becomes impossible to track whether they have enough. More than that, if I send a shelter with critically low water levels a truck full of some water, some clothes, and some other stuff, I may be doing more harm than good; not only do they likely not have the capacity to sort what I sent, they have no place to store things that can’t be used immediately, and they either have to keep everything on the truck (which means the truck isn’t available to transport new shipments) or take up valuable shelter space with piles of unnecessary stuff.

If this concept isn’t planned, it rapidly becomes obvious to anyone managing the logistics of response. Unfortunately, it is not obvious to well-intentioned bystanders. So unsolicited donations flow in, most of it unsorted. “Mystery bags” of clothes, blankets, and who knows what else are dropped off at shelters. Truckloads of donations from church groups in the Carolinas and the Dakotas arrive without specific destinations. And responders, whose goal is to match resources to need, get diverted into making sure those donations don’t choke their logistics network.

This is not to say that the outpouring of support and the desire to help aren’t appreciated; in a lot of cases, these kinds of efforts are the only ray of hope for people whose lives are destroyed. And giving something tangible, not just money, contributes to the much-needed feeling that an entire country is coming together to help its vulnerable citizens.

The response world’s challenge, then, is this: How can we direct in-kind giving to encourage and maximize outside assistance without disrupting critical response work?

New York City came up with several innovative ways to try to strike this balance. First, as much as possible, individuals were encouraged to give money rather than items. This message was relayed through a number of channels, including the city’s service website (link to: nyservice.org), Twitter, not-for-profit partners, and OpEds like this one by Jose Holguin-Veras (link to: http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/latest-columns/20121106-jose-holguin-veras-avoiding-a-post-sandy-disaster.ece).

Second, individuals looking to donate were directed to their local Salvation Army or Goodwill store. Why? Unlike response organizations, these two groups have the local capacity already in place to receive, sort, store, and transport unsolicited gifts. Where donations are not immediately useful for affected people, they have the ability to turn things like golf clubs and tuxedos into revenue that can later be used to aid response and recovery efforts. And, because those organizations also have the capacity to separate different kinds of donations, donors have the satisfaction that their contribution did its part. If I contribute food, my food goes to a shelter; if I give something like golf clubs, they go to Goodwill.

It is also interesting to note that both Salvation Army and Goodwill developed voucher systems for disaster victims. The vouchers allowed people to purchase what they needed rather than what donors thought they wanted.

Third, VOAD groups (link to: http://www.nvoad.org/) like the American Red Cross managed large-scale corporate donations through their well-established infrastructure. Large-scale, unsolicited in-kind donations (such as the bounty of a church donations drive) and trucks (including the one that was en route in those first few days) were intercepted before they got to the city so that the goods could be sorted and redirected as appropriate without interfering with operations in the city. This eliminated the need for massive donations warehouses like those that popped up after the Joplin, MO tornadoes last year. It also cut down the potential for disaster capitalists to sell donations that the city didn’t want.

New York City continues to struggle with in-kind donations—from club DJs with weekend drives to individuals cleaning out their closets continue to send “mystery bags” to shelters and other sites that don’t have capacity. As response turns to recovery and the flow of generosity decreases, the need to manage existing donations will increase. Building on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy and earlier events like the March 2011 Japanese earthquake/tsunami and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the disaster response community can move forward with innovative approaches to the logistics of in-kind donations that will make a difference when the next disaster strikes.


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By Dr. Jarrod Goentzel

The mammoth logistics effort needed to help New York City cope with the ravages of Hurricane Sandy is a story that will unfold over the coming months. But there is one logistical subplot that may surprise those active in the response and the public at large: the race to reopen the city’s schools.

Amid the turmoil brought on by Hurricane Sandy, bringing New York’s schools back on stream may not seem like a critical priority.  But as I witnessed firsthand last month in New York, and in other contexts such as Haiti in 2010, returning the education system to normalcy is a vital, and perhaps underestimated, logistical step on the road to recovery.

Unused emergency supplies await pickup as a shelter is transitioned back to a school

Unused emergency supplies await pickup as a shelter is transitioned back to a school

Amidst the chaos post-disaster, children need the routine that is imposed by school timetables. And having kids under the care of teachers frees time for weary parents to focus on disaster recovery.

But the challenge is far more complicated than inspecting and cleaning classrooms.

On October 28, more than one day before Sandy arrived in New York, the city mobilized 76 shelters, mostly in public schools. A few days after the storm passed, city leaders decided to consolidate the network into 15 core shelters, including four special “warming centers” where citizens could manage the dropping temperatures. The goal was set to transform most shelters back to their primary role as schools by Monday morning, November 5.

This transition required a huge logistics operation, one of many managed by the New York City Office of Emergency Management (NYC OEM). Ample supplies of critical items such as blankets, cots, food, hygiene products, and water – which had been successfully deployed prior to the storm – had to be shipped from 61 locations scattered across the city back to a warehouse for redeployment as speedily as possible.

NYC OEM workers repalletize water

Workers repalletize water

The age of some of the buildings posed a number of unique logistics problems. For example, many old-style school doors have steel posts positioned narrow enough to make it impossible for pallets to pass. Full pallets of supplies such as water had to be manually disassembled so the items could be carried out of the building. Once outside, they had to be repalletized before being loaded on the trucks.

This work required many hands, so logistics personnel drove to the schools to do the heavy lifting. That required them to burn gasoline – a scarce commodity in the storm-torn city. As a result, an additional logistics challenge was organizing this operation while keeping fuel consumption to a minimum.

Planning required coordination with staff at the schools, to estimate the quantity of supplies remaining in each building for labor and truck assignments and to ensure access for the around-the-clock operation. Further complicating plans, efforts were made to redeploy supplies directly to the remaining shelters, using impromptu “crossdocks” to avoid unnecessary trips to the warehouse.

Despite the scale of operations required over the weekend, the logistics operation was a success. All shelter supplies were removed by Sunday night, some 12 hours ahead of schedule. Dozens of former shelters were able to open their doors for school children on Monday morning.

Arriving within days of the disaster to assist the NYC OEM logistics team where needed, I was surprised that my first role focused on reverse logistics. I was tasked with “demobilizing” at a time when many people were still in need. But I quickly learned that sometimes the mantra of logistics professionals – having the right goods at the right place at the right time – means getting supplies out of the way…so the kids can come back to school.

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