Auburn professor: Devastation of Harvey, arrival of Irma reinforce need for collaboration between agencies and industry

Published: September 06, 2017
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As Florida braces for a potential weekend arrival by Hurricane Irma, local, state and federal officials are wrestling with the same questions and concerns as their counterparts in Texas did before Hurricane Harvey.

How should volunteers be utilized? Where will critical supplies be stored and who will distribute them? What businesses can be used as rescue and relief staging areas after the storm, and for how long?

Glenn Richey, a supply chain professor in Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, saw firsthand the problems that can surface for governmental agencies and private businesses while living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in April 2011. An EF-4 tornado ripped through the community, killing 64 and injuring 1,500. Trailers packed with supplies for displaced residents filled shopping center parking lots which, in turn, created challenges for retailers and transportation companies eager to resume business.

"Those people said on Monday morning, `We want to go back to work,’" recalled Richey, Harbert College’s Eminent Scholar in Supply Chain Management. "The supplies in those trailers and parking lots were for people who had their homes destroyed—people who had no water and only the clothes on their backs. What do you do? Do you go back to business as usual, or do you step up and do what you can to help the community?"

Having weathered Hurricanes Elena and Frederic, as well as an EF-5 tornado while living in Oklahoma City, Richey has seen his share of natural disasters and, unfortunately, more than a few botched relief efforts. Richey and co-authors from Ohio University and the University of Louisiana recently published an article in the Journal of Business Logistics that offers a potential solution.

Their article suggests the development of a governing framework that bridges logistics and communications management gaps between public and private entities in the wake of natural and man-made disasters. Richey suggests the development of boards that would connect private businesses with officials from FEMA, Homeland Security and state and local agencies charged with responding to hurricanes and other threats. Such short-term, public-private partnerships would work collaboratively to share and manage resources and information, coordinate personnel engaged in rescue and recovery efforts and re-open supply chains to mitigate shortages of food, fuel, water and critical services.

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 50 inches of rain, killed more than 60, displaced more than 1 million and damaged approximately 200,000 homes—all adding up to an estimated price tag of $180 billion. The storm interrupted power to more than 300,000 homes and interrupted fuel refinement and distribution.

"We need to ensure that everyone is focused on one outcome, understand the roles of each group and build their goals together so they can achieve the protection of human life," Richey said. "If a hurricane hits, you’ve got to have the businesses in that community willing to cooperate with the government and share the information that they have, and have the government share important information as well."

Management of volunteers and donated supplies represents one of the most challenging aspects of post-disaster recovery. A recent CBS News story highlighted logistical problems that have undermined relief efforts for Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, among others. Closed ports or airfields make it unlikely that supplies will reach those who need them the most in a timely manner. The CBS News story described how donated clothing in the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami sat and rotted because relief workers didn’t have enough time to sort and clean items.

"The thinking is that these people have lost everything, so they must need everything," former Center for the International Disaster Information Director Juanita Rilling told CBS News.

What they may need the most, Richey suggested, is close coordination between governmental agencies with the resources to help and businesses with local knowledge and specific expertise.

"The end of this is essentially a call to arms for businesses and government to get together," he said.