Flexibility Is the Key

Flexibility Is the Key

More than a month after the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake, relief efforts are shifting gears to meet changing demands, says Tom O’Malley, vice president of cargo for UPS America.

“Initially, we were carrying in high-energy biscuits, ready-to-eat meals, medical supplies and hygiene kits,” he said. “Now we’re seeing relief groups moving blankets, tarps and tents as we look at longer-term solutions. People still need water and food and medical supplies, but the base of products being sent is broadening.”

UPS, one of many transportation companies supporting the relief effort, began marshaling its aviation resources the day after the earthquake. That includes flights into Port-au-Prince airport, a key path for relief into the city for the first two weeks after the quake, when the facility saw a large volume of freighters from all over the world along with flights bringing in aid workers.

“We’ve doubled our capacity for our regularly scheduled flights that go from Miami to Santo Domingo,” O’Malley said. “We’ve also flown five charters into Santo Domingo, four into Port-au-Prince, and we have 21 more scheduled into Port-au-Prince in the next three weeks.”

With more goods flowing directly by air and especially by sea to Port-au-Prince, there’s less need for transshipping through the Dominican Republic, O’Malley said. “Santo Domingo became slot-restricted because there were so many relief aircraft on the ground there,” he said. “Now we’re sending more into Port-au-Prince.”

UPS coordinates its efforts with four leading relief groups — CARE, the International Red Cross, UNICEF and the Salvation Army. UPS also has sent logistics experts to Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

As the crisis moves into its second month, O’Malley sees the logistical challenges evolving. “Initially, the biggest difficulty is that Haiti is on an island, and the only way to get goods there was by air or sea. We had to get goods to a port that was destroyed and an airport that was congested; that was the first nightmare,” he said.

The Haitian crisis has proved different from previous disasters. “There’s an absolute level of flexibility one must have to be able to deal with disasters,” O’Malley said. “One has to be prepared and flexible enough to move operations around to satisfy the dynamic environment.”

Once a beachhead was established in Port-au-Prince, setting up a distribution network for the devastated city became the next priority. “The big problem then was the establishment of ultimate distribution,” getting the goods to those in need out beyond the port, airport and warehouses to those in need — last-mile delivery. That has proved very difficult for international aid organizations, O’Malley said. “The process is getting better, but it’s getting better from a base that’s not very good,” he said.

Haiti has poor infrastructure to start with, and the devastation has left little for relief organizations to work with.

“To walk into an environment where there’s no roads, water or infrastructure is a Herculean feat on the part of all those organizations, the governments and the NGOs,” O’Malley said. “Now . . . I don’t know what’s larger than Herculean. The words aren’t there. But there’s still so much to do.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at wcassidy@joc.com.