Snarled distribution networks hamper Puerto Rico relief

Snarled distribution networks hamper Puerto Rico relief

Hurricane Maria ravaged roads and bridges on Puerto Rico, forcing first responders to utilize inflatable rafts or climb mudslides to deliver aid.

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, logistical challenges continue to plague recovery efforts in the US commonwealth, even as aid streams toward the island. UPS said Thursday it had reestablished package, air, and some freight services throughout most of Puerto Rico, though it warned shippers of ongoing delays.

Ports and airports have reopened, but mudslides and flooding are obstacles to moving supplies inland. Most of the 3.4 million people on the island are still without power, access to drinking water, or cell phone service, according to the American Red Cross. As of Wednesday, only 8 percent of Puerto Rican roads were open, the Red Cross said.

The scope of the damage caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands presents an unprecedented logistical challenge for the US and for relief organizations, compounding demands of relief efforts under way along the US Gulf Coast and in Florida, following hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

A new storm brewing in the western Caribbean and Central America, currently known as Tropical Storm Nate, is expected to hit the US Gulf Coast, perhaps as a minor hurricane, this weekend. That could create a further drain on relief resources and organizations and complicate recovery efforts in Texas and Florida.

In Puerto Rico, relief efforts aimed at basic resupply and reconstruction will be needed for months, but Maria’s legacy will include long-term supply chain problems, especially for pharmaceutical companies that make up a large part of Puerto Rico’s manufacturing base (manufacturing accounts for nearly half the island’s economy).

The US Food and Drug Administration last week warned of a possible shortfall of critical drugs produced on the island. The agency’s commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, said in Puerto Rico last Friday the agency is tracking about 40 drugs, 13 produced only in Puerto Rico, that could be vulnerable to shortages caused by shuttered factories.

In the first days of October, more than 550 containers left TOTE Maritime’s terminal in San Juan for distribution in communities across Puerto Rico. In the days immediately after Maria, a lack of available drayage drivers was a roadblock to aid, with many drivers dealing with personal loss and fuel and passable roads scarce across the island.

That led to reports of thousands of containers being stranded, without drivers to haul them inland. The driver shortage was only the tip of the problem, however. “It is unclear if there are trucks available to move the containers, fuel to operate the trucks, or road access to the distribution centers,” the Teamsters union said Sept. 30.

The TOTE ship MV Isla Bella arrived on Oct. 1 with more than 1,040 FEU of cargo, and the MV Perla del Caribe is scheduled to arrive Friday with an additional 1,060 FEU, carrying everything from bucket trucks and electrical poles to food, water, and ice. By Oct. 4, TOTE’s terminal in San Juan is operating at 80 percent productivity.

Crowley Maritime has worked closely with the US Federal Emergency Management Administration and relief organizations since the Category 4 hurricane hit the island Sept. 20. “This is a team effort,” Jose 'Pache' Ayala, vice president of Puerto Rico services, said in a statement. “We are working with our commercial customers to understand their shipping needs and help them scale back, while maintaining our focus on expediting FEMA cargo.”

By Friday, Crowley projects to have 4,100 commercial loads on its terminal ready for pickup containing products including food, beverages, construction materials, clothing, and more.

Trailer Bridge increased vessel capacity in the Puerto Rico market to support additional post-storm demand. “This new departure is now available on a biweekly basis for containerized cargo in addition to the four vessels we currently have in service,” the company said Tuesday. The new vessel left Jacksonville, Florida, on Monday.

Inland distribution, however, coupled with restored communications, remains the key to even the first steps in Puerto Rico’s recovery. Diesel fuel is required to power generators and tractor-trailers alike. “The situation is dynamic,” UPS Americas region president, Romaine Seguin, said in a statement Thursday. “Power outages, many impassable roads, and damaged communications infrastructure are impacting our ability to operate normally.”

Shippers should anticipate delayed service. The company’s time-in-transit commitments have been temporarily suspended, due to the extensive damage to the island’s roads, UPS said.

Many residents of Puerto Rico are temporarily living in what the company called “alternative dwellings,” which makes it difficult for UPS to deliver goods. In addition, many businesses have yet to reopen. To cope with that dislocation, UPS is holding packages for pick-up at five of its seven package centers in Puerto Rico.

UPS also reports a backlog of Puerto Rican-bound packages and shipments throughout the island and on the US mainland. In the meantime, the transportation and logistics operator is offering a special hurricane aid rate discount for packages shipped from the US mainland to Puerto Rico and select Caribbean islands.