Delivering relief to tsunami victims

Feb. 14, 2005
Millions around the world opened their hearts and their wallets to provide unprecedented financial aid to relief agencies working in the Asian regions

Millions around the world opened their hearts and their wallets to provide unprecedented financial aid to relief agencies working in the Asian regions struck by an earthquake and tsunami on December 26. But the real relief story starts years before the disaster and will extend long after the story is no longer front-page news. This is a look at the logistics that make these worldwide relief efforts possible.

In a relief effort, need transcends policy, but it doesn't always overcome politics. Rebel factions in Indonesia tacitly agreed to a ceasefire and turned their attentions to relief efforts for thousands of people affected by the tsunami. That didn't stop politics from slowing aid to rebel held regions, as the military units responsible for distributing aid directed that effort to areas more supportive of the government. Relief agencies brought balance as they took over the operations, but found they had to rely on the military just the same since the administrative infrastructure had been wiped out and the only organized governing body in the region-was the military.

Just weeks into the effort, bureaucracy was returning to the area as governments attempted to get a handle on the masses of people pouring into the region, ostensibly to provide help. There is an element of chaos created by the well-meaning that is familiar in relief circles. Much of this was staved off by immediate calls for cash, not goods, to aid victims.

Many airports did not have full use of their runways, and this limited the size and payload of aircraft coming into the area.

Disaster relief agencies acknowledge that the effort is roughly 80% logistics, and controlling procurement and flow into the region is only one side of that equation. One reason agencies were quick to call for cash instead of goods was their desire to procure as much as they could "in theater" and save the cost and complexity of moving tons of material thousands of miles.

Beyond the practical considerations of time and cost, there were the infrastructure issues. Many airports did not have full use of their runways, and this limited the size and payload of aircraft coming into the area. Ports suffered some delays as the worst-hit ports cleared their harbors and others assessed damage.

As the situation unfolded, military and other smaller airfields were pressed into service to receive relief supplies. "These small airstrips aren't used to a surge of cargo planes," points out Lynn Fritz, whose Fritz Institute (www. has been working for the last few years to address logistics capabilities of relief efforts. "We learned that in Iran after the Bam earthquake. Suddenly there was more stuff on the tarmac and the airplanes couldn't come in. There was no process to stage and organize the cargo and equipment that you have to have on the ground." After the 2003 Iran earthquake the World Economic Forum ( developed the Disaster Resource Network (DRN) ( so that the private sector could respond, Fritz explains.

DHL's Chris Weeks is director of the DRN, which was set up with other companies such as TNT, ARAMEX, Dnata and Emirates Airline. The Airport Emergency Team rolled into action immediately, helping to land, process and move tons of incoming food, medical and other supplies. According to Weeks, they had processed 200 aircraft loads just days into the effort and were getting geared up for the full relief operations. The team was busy around the clock supervising cargo operations.

The Airport Emergency Team includes individuals from Norway, Belgium, The Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Germany, India and Sri Lanka. Over 50 local workers helped process and move the shipments. Member companies provided logistics management expertise, air cargo capacity and even brought in skilled lift truck operators.

The DRN effort proves one of Lynn Fritz's key points. Planning and preparation are critical. As any supply chain professional will appreciate, you don't typically design a system for peak demand and have resources sitting idle during the off-peak period. Disaster relief agencies face this problem on a global scale and at a magnitude that few, if any, supply chain executives will encounter.

"You don't want to have 7,000 volunteers out in an area waiting," says Fritz. "You do want the core expertise, core systems, core methodologies and core training so you are ready to respond to that moment of urgency."

When the tsunami is off the front pages there will still be a tremendous aftermath to deal with, Fritz continues. He divides disaster relief efforts into three stages: the preparatory stage, the relief effort and the aftermath with reconstruction and redevelopment.

"Many of the humanitarian aid organizations are very adept at the emergency response," acknowledges Fritz. "They have specialized teams of people and equipment that can get to the affected area, identify the issues and the nature of the problem. Those are the doctors and engineers."

Critical to the reconstruction and recovery are the local people who live in the area and can initiate action and provide ongoing support, Fritz continues. One goal of Fritz Institute's Corporations for Humanity is to institutionalize the effort to find and support the procurement and logistics talent that will keep things flowing in the aftermath of a disaster. That brings his discussion full circle to the preparation element of disaster response.

The Corporations for Humanity is a kind of Peace Corps of logistics, but with much less of a time commitment, Fritz explains. It seeks private sector experts in procurement, logistics and other needed skills who can devote some time to supporting systemic change in humanitarian assistance.

As the Asian tsunami relief effort turns to recovery and redevelopment, the goal of the disaster response organizations will be to maintain a core of expertise that can help raise the level of effectiveness of relief efforts as they continue in response to events large and small around the world.

Workers unload bags of vegetables from a U.S. Air Force helicopter during relief operations for tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. The airmen are transporting food, medicine and supplies in support of Operation Unified Assistance.

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