Japan

Japan

It’s a cruel truth that private and government disaster relief organizations have gotten far more experience at their work in recent years than any of us could possibly imagine.

That is a consequence of the grim list of disasters that seem to have come more often and with greater force than ever over the last two decades. Catastrophes such as the earthquakes in Kobe in 1995 and in Haiti last year have spawned a vast international relief apparatus that rises up in times of need and then seems to evaporate as the crisis recedes.

That network never really disappears, however, and the event that really helped create this shadow global logistics network was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.

The horrifying images from Japan last week evoke memories of that tragedy, bringing back grief that, as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said of the toll in the September 11 terror attacks, is more than any of us can bear.

But the grief following the 2004 tsunami didn’t stop governments and private industry from learning important lessons and putting them into action.

That was evident as the suffering in Japan was still unfolding as the organizations devoted to disaster relief began the painful but necessary process of bringing those seemingly ad hoc relief networks into being.

The initial actions of rescue, evacuation and bringing in life-sustaining supplies come from the military and official authorities. But even there, private transportation networks are critical. Japan’s Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, which was still taking an accounting of its own personnel, put four vessels from its ferry subsidiary into service for the Japan Self-Defense Forces getting rescue workers to the disaster scene.

Other carriers, including CMA CGM, FedEx and EVA Air, began opening their operations to relief groups.

But the next stage is where the lessons of the 2004 tsunami come into play, and that was still developing days after the tsunami hit northeastern Japan. In 2004, logistics and shipping groups set up rudimentary but highly efficient logistics operations to manage the flow of the water, medicine, food and other goods needed to stave off the disease and malnutrition that follow the initial rescue efforts.

Those tight and focused supply chains were being put into motion last week by managers with the expertise needed to handle the complex task. These are networks that must be designed beforehand to be effective, but pieced together without knowing when or where they will be used.

In the United States, the American Logistics Aid Network, a coalition of like-minded companies that donate their services as needed to the humanitarian effort, was preparing to come in when the first rescue and relief efforts had given way to the long haul.

“We’re monitoring what is happening and staying in touch with the (nongovernmental) organizations,” said Jock Menzies, chairman of the Baltimore-based Terminal Corp. and ALAN’s president. “Usually it takes a while for specific needs to emerge as they assess the situation. Then they will be reaching out to us.”

“What’s important is that you not just ship ‘stuff,’ ” he said, “but respond with the goods that are needed where they are needed.”

Paul Page is executive director of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 202-355-1170, or at ppage@joc.com. Follow Paul Page on Twitter, www.twitter.com/paulpage.