Tsunami aftermath: How to make good logistics better

The most massive global disaster relief effort in history was effective because of good planning, based on lessons learned from earlier efforts. The successful and prompt delivery of relief to victims of the Asian tsunami was made possible largely thanks to the experience gained from an earthquake in Iran a year earlier.

In his two years as director of the Disaster Resource Network (DRN) (www.drnglobal.org) for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Chris Weeks — on loan from DHL — has gained invaluable insight into what works, and what doesn't, when providing humanitarian logistics. In an exclusive interview with Logistics Today, he shared the following observations:

Take enough people. "I'd take 20 people for 20 days instead of 10 people for 10 days," Weeks says.

Take the right skills. "If you're only taking a few people, you want to take the most skilled, versatile people you can find."

Needs vary over time. "At one stage, we needed forklift drivers. A few days later, we needed supervisors. Then we needed someone with IT skills. And we needed a bookkeeper to keep the money organized because we were dealing in cash. And we needed a camp organizer to sort out accommodation and meals for the team."

Communications are critical. "At the top of the list of things I'd do differently, I'd take a public relations/ communications person," he stresses. The DRN team was so stretched, they weren't communicating properly with stakeholders and the rest of the community. "Nobody knew what we were doing. I wouldn't say we'd be more effective, but certainly we'd be more appreciated by the companies that donated their people."

Material handling is challenging. "In an ideal world, we would have taken our own equipment in terms of forklifts and pallet handlers." Not everything could be moved by brute force, and finding equipment locally was costly and complicated.

Dock management skills are important. "We had IT skills because we brought them with us, but we also needed to find people who knew how to load a 40-foot container the most efficient way with the equipment we had." Aircraft load characteristics are different from loading a truck, especially when many of the trucks vary in size and capacity.

Language and culture count. Simple directions for common tasks have to be translated into the local language. Supervising and motivating local labor also presents challenges.

Send in the Marines. The U.S. Marines responded promptly to the tsunami. According to Weeks, they provided a motivated, organized, disciplined force trained to work together. That's a goal of the Disaster Resource Network — "To create emergency teams that deploy business know-how, human resources, equipment and technology at the request of the United Nations to speed the flow of live-saving supplies and improve coordination of relief and recovery efforts."

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