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Survivors collect water from a broken water pipe in an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan on November 12, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines. Four days after the Typhoon Haiyan devastated the region many have nothing left, they are without food or power and most lost their homes. Around 10,000 people are feared dead in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. Photo: Dondi Tawatao, Getty Images

Survivors collect water from a broken water pipe in an area devastated by Typhoon Haiyan on November 12, 2013 in Leyte, Philippines. Four days after the Typhoon Haiyan devastated the region many have nothing left, they are without food or power and most lost their homes. Around 10,000 people are feared dead in the strongest typhoon to hit the Philippines this year. Photo: Dondi Tawatao, Getty Images

By Dr. Jarrod Goentzel, Director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab

After Super Typhoon Haiyan struck, I saw several images, videos, and anecdotes that made my gut ache. People in crowded clinics waiting for medicine to arrive, others congregating around scarce water pipes filling containers for family and friends, and saddest of all, survivors mournfully searching through makeshift morgues to identify loved ones.

During a massive disaster response, news reporters always find these stories that sadden me…and frustrate me. Inevitably, journalists ask affected people why the government and aid agencies cannot coordinate the response to meet the dire needs of victims. Interviewees usually do not know why the response is slow, but they rightly assert that the problem needs to be solved.  Reporters then find their way to the airport to find aid items – some of which may have helped the people they just interviewed – sitting on the tarmac. They ask airport officials and aid agencies why more goods are not being moved to the disaster area quicker. The response is that the situation is very dynamic and complex.

The picture is complete for the news articles and broadcasts about the disaster: needy residents are unable to understand why aid is slow, and officials are not able to clearly explain why.

Leaving the story at that point is what frustrates me. Having worked actively with humanitarian organizations on logistics for over ten years now, I know the good work that is done after these tragic situations to explain where and why aid was too slow. I see the passion of aid workers who are just as frustrated as the affected residents that the system does not work better. They identify issues and propose solutions. Then I see the incremental progress implemented during the next big disaster. The cluster approach1 proposed after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami has been implemented and improved over the years.

We need both narratives during a disaster – those tracking the unmet needs and those following the coordinated response efforts . There are good sources of information about how the system is working and how many people are being served during a crisis. I have listed several of my usual sources below (note that they do have a logistics angle). These sources may be a bit dry – they are aimed to disseminate facts to other responders, not stories for the public – but they provide the information for the media consumer who is left asking: what is being done for that needy survivor Anderson Cooper just interviewed?

I also want reporters to continue finding the people whose needs are not being met appropriately (as long as their planes do not block the flow of any essential commodities). Although frustrating to me in isolation, these stories identify the service gaps in order to focus the response efforts and mobilize the resources we need to find solutions.

The aid community is just as motivated by the sad stories as the public. And they are just as frustrated when the complex system of humanitarian response does not do enough. Aid workers and the concerned public need to continue following both storylines and demanding improvements.

Information Sources for Typhoon Haiyan

Philippines National Government
http://www.ndrrmc.gov.ph – the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Center (NDRRMC) leads the response efforts for the Philippine government; frequent and lengthy situation reports track the impact (with several large tables of numbers), the national emergency response management efforts, and international humanitarian assistance

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and sector clusters
http://www.unocha.org/crisis/typhoonhaiyan and http://philippines.humanitarianresponse.info – portals with links to each of the clusters where you find more details about that sector; a key document is the Typhoon Haiyan Action Plan (12 Nov 2013), which lists the strategic objectives and key projects, with their funding requirements, for over 20 organizations

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement
http://www.ifrc.org/en/publications-and-reports/appeals – archive with early information bulletins; the appeal (12 Nov 2013) outlining actions planned to meet the immediate needs of the people affected and support the Philippine Red Cross in delivering humanitarian assistance; operation updates to track the progress of activities

ReliefWeb
http://reliefweb.int/disaster/tc-2013-000139-phl – an independent portal that archives documents spanning various organizations

Logistics Cluster
http://logcluster.org/ops/phl13a – portal with various documents and maps describing logistics efforts; meeting minutes and situation reports offer the best overall picture of efforts to move critical supplies; the Concept of Operations outlines the coordination mechanisms (among response organizations and with government, military, etc.), information management (e.g. customs, local transporters, infrastructure status), and common services (e.g. transportation, warehousing) to fill identified gaps in logistics capacity

Donors
http://fts.unocha.org – tracks donations made toward the UN OCHA Typhoon Haiyan Action Plan; note some donors have portals with their own situation reports and assistance efforts.

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1 The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), involving the key UN and non-UN humanitarian partners, established the cluster approach for inter-agency coordination around focus areas such as shelter, nutrition, health, logistics, etc. For more information see http://www.humanitarianinfo.org/iasc.

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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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