Publication Detail

Improving Post-Disaster Humanitarian Logistics: Three Key Lessons from Catastrophic Events



Available online at: Transportation Research Board

Suggested Citation:
Holguín-Veras, José, Miguel Jaller, Tricia Wachtendorf (2013) Improving Post-Disaster Humanitarian Logistics: Three Key Lessons from Catastrophic Events. Transportation Research Board TR News 287, 4 - 10

Catastrophic events such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, and the Tohoku tsunami in 2011 reinforce the critical importance of postdisaster humanitarian logistics (PD-HL), not only in transporting and distributing supplies to the affected populations but in the larger response effort. Conducting efficient and effective PD-HL operations in the aftermath of such events is a huge challenge.

The world today is embedded in complex sociotechnical systems—networks of individuals conducting technical activities through a set of supporting systems, such as transportation, communications, and finance. The impacts of a catastrophe on these components and systems are severe, as individual members of the social networks may be killed, injured, or displaced; the equipment and materials needed to conduct the technical activities may be destroyed or may lack the necessary inputs to run; and all of the supporting systems are likely to be inoperable or to function at a fraction of their normal capacity.

Catastrophic events present other unique and notable challenges. In the aftermath, large and dynamically changing volumes of critical supplies must be transported in a short time; great uncertainty prevails about the needs for critical supplies; the ability of the local civic society to organize a response is compromised; large portions of critical local assets are destroyed; and huge flows of nonpriority donations arrive at the site, distracting resources from more critical tasks (1–3).

Moreover, a poor understanding of catastrophes affects the nature and efficiency of a response. Because catastrophic events are rare, only a minuscule percentage of responders have experience in postcatastrophe logistics and operations. In addition, the events are extremely dynamic and can quickly transition from stage to stage. Lastly, catastrophes are extremely difficult to study—travel to the area is required soon after to observe the unfolding response.

Fieldwork that has spanned such catastrophic events as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, the Port-au-Prince earthquake, the Tohoku tsunami, the Joplin tornados, and Superstorm Sandy has yielded definite lessons. The focus here, however, is on the top three lessons learned from the Port-au-Prince and the Tohoku responses. These two events provide complementary lessons leading to a unified and comprehensive set of suggestions for improvement (4–6).