Lessons of Large Disasters for Post-Disaster Response

Extreme events pose serious logistical challenges to emergency and aid organizations active in preparation, response, and recovery operations, as the disturbances they bring about turn normal conditions into chaos. On Wednesday, May 6, José Holguín-Veras, the William H. Hart Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, hosted a webinar titled “Lessons of Large Disasters for Post-Disaster Response,”

“In the case of catastrophic events, delivering the critical supplies required becomes an extremely difficult task because of the severe damages to the physical and virtual infrastructures and the very limited, or non-existent, transportation capacity,” said Holguín-Veras. “In this context, the recovery process is made more difficult by the prevailing lack of knowledge about the nature and challenges of post-disaster humanitarian logistics.”

The presentation is based on the quick response fieldwork conducted by the author and his colleagues on the largest disasters of recent times, which include, among many others, the 2011 Tohoku disasters in Japan, the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

This presentation discussed the important lessons that ought to be learned from these disasters, and the implications for the response to the Nepal earthquake.

Professor Jose Holguín-Veras’ research is not for the faint of heart. He was in New Orleans when the levee failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He traveled to Haiti less than a week after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. And he visited Japan in 2011 as soon as U.S. travel restrictions to the area were lifted following the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis.

At these and dozens of other disaster sites, Holguín-Veras took careful inventory of the relief policies, procedures, preparations, and infrastructure in place. His work, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies, aims to analyze what went right, and identify what could be improved in preparation for future disasters. Holguín-Veras is an adviser to many international governments on these matters.

A key facet of Holguín-Veras’ research looks at donations, donation patterns, and how donated money is used. Some of the stories he unearthed are bewildering: wedding dresses and winter coats sent to Florida after a summer hurricane; pork meat donated to Muslim earthquake victims in Turkey; or 10 freight containers sent to Port-au-Prince filled with donated refrigerators that required a voltage different from what is used in Haiti.

While these humanitarian donations were sent with good intentions, they generally clog up the limited supply chains into disaster areas and occupy the time of volunteers who could be contributing in other ways. And for the donations that are usable, there is often no system, network, or infrastructure in place to get those items to those people who need it. Sadly, in the end, many of these donations simply end up abandoned or in landfills.

Holguín-Veras is the recipient of a number of national awards, including the 2013 White House Transportation Champion of Change Award, the Milton Pikarsky Memorial Award in 1996, and the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, for his contributions to freight transportation modeling and economics. His research interests are in the areas of: freight transportation modeling and economics, transportation planning, and humanitarian logistics. He is a member of numerous technical committees at the key professional organizations, and referee for the major professional journals. Holguín-Veras is president of the Scientific Committee of the Pan-American Conference of Transportation and Traffic Engineering and Logistics, elected member of the Council for the Association for European Transport, and member of the Scientific Committee of the World Conference of Transport Research. He received his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Information regarding Rensselaer’s Humanitarian Logistics Research Group

Rensselaer’s Humanitarian Logistics Research Group has pioneered the multidisciplinary study of post-disaster humanitarian logistic operations. Using a holistic approach encompassing field work, quantitative characterization of operations, and basic research on analytical modeling, the group has: identified the key lessons learned from the response to the largest disasters of recent times, translated these lessons into actionable policy recommendations, shared these suggestions with disaster response agencies, developed new paradigms of humanitarian logistic models that account for material convergence, deprivation costs and other unique features of post-disaster operations. As part of the field work, the group has conducted detailed analyses of the most prominent disasters of recent times, including: Hurricane Katrina, the Port-au-Prince earthquake, the tornadoes in Joplin and Alabana, Hurricane Irene, and the Tohoku disasters in Japan.

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