Supplying Relief

Supplying Relief

It's not your typical supply chain, the kind we usually write about that starts in a raw materials site in a far corner of the world and ends at a manufacturing facility, a way station perhaps on the way to a consumer. No, this supply chain begins on an elementary school stage, a modest beginning that is part of the fabric of a logistics chain that in fact carries uncommon hope.

A few cans of food first, some jugs of water carried by children then cases of drinking water carried by their parents and set beside blankets and socks.

This is just one fairly dilapidated gymnasium in one school, but across the city, across the country and across the world it's a scene being duplicated with similar goods and similar hope aimed at relieving the suffering and restoring the humanity to a region of the world where it seemed as if humanity was ripped away in just a few cruel moments.

From manufacturers in Denmark and Dubuque to the world's largest transport carriers, the logistics world turned out in force in the days after the natural disaster in South Asia. At the first word that the world faced a still-unfolding catastrophe, a network of relief supply chain experts went into action with warehouses opened, phone calls triggering new actions and flight plans filed and quickly approved, all of it throwing into the light a kind of shadow world of logistics that sits dormant until catastrophe strikes.

In the Congo, Turkey, Iran and even the United States, it's a logistics network that has eased pain and limited suffering. In this case, however, it was a supply chain that appeared incapable of dealing with a disaster of this scale.

The early images and stories from Sri Lanka and Indonesia were disheartening, to put it mildly.

An Australian military cargo plane arrives with desperately needed supplies and sits unloaded, its commander told he cannot get approval to bring in his own ground crew. Supplies filter out but roads are gone, whole towns are gone. Flights to the sites most desperately in need are cut off when, bizarrely, one relief aircraft crashes when a herd of cattle cross the runway.

Jan Egeland, the emergency relief coordinator at the United Nations, said last week there is "a sense of desperation" aid is not getting to people who are in terrible need.

Yet these supply chains that are bent and stretched do not break. It may take the military, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines in many cases, to finally bring goods in, but more of those blankets and bottles of water keep flying in. One logistics company gets a pair of its own helicopters to fly over devastation.

And in so many of those efforts, there is the kind of hope you'll find at a modest elementary school trying to do its part.

In China, a government that often seems walled off to the rest of the world is one of the first to mobilize relief supplies and a Chinese carrier, China Southern, pulls freighters from scheduled commercial flights to deliver the humanitarian shipment.

Warehouses in Sri Lanka and Jakarta are turned over to the U.N., warships are turned into hospitals and even a small stage at an elementary school is turned into a single point in a sprawling and growing chain of unparalleled logistics.