Supply chain management within a natural disaster

Talking about supply chain management in companies is one thing that is more or less easy to understand, says David Kiger. In special circumstances, for example an earthquake or flood, supply chain efficiency could mean the difference between life and death for some people that are affected by the disaster itself. The problem that hurricane Katrina brought for shippers and rescue teams was incredible and devastating. Aids were late and there were no clear answers on why food and medicine did not reach the right places and the right people.

A natural disaster brings many challenges when it is time to recover and rebuilt what is left. Logistics play a big role in the success or failure of the contingency plan. Regular people can see on the news how a state reacts to these types of disasters and can easily judge what is happening, not knowing that behind all that efficiency or failure there is a big logistics effort. Let’s take a look at some key strategies that could be used when a natural disaster hits and it is time to respond to the disaster in the most effective way.

Image courtesy of DFID - UK Department for International Development at
Image courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development at


The idea with this strategy is to position important or key elements prior to a disaster or in a very delicate disaster zone. Prepositioning supplemental resources in or near the incident location is very similar to what the military does for conflicts or anticipation of conflicts. The Army prepositioned stocks (APS) in southwest Asia (APS–5), Korea (APS–4), and the Indian Ocean (APS–3) are good examples. Non-governmental organizations also preposition items in advance of a disaster to reduce the response time of providing relief. Organizations must know where to reposition their supplies so their time of response is considerably reduced.  Prepositioning could have been a desirable logistics strategy in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and Hurricane Katrina because it would have shortened the lead-time to provide supplies. However, locating the supplies outside disaster areas for long periods of time is dangerous and brings security issues.  Other supplies that can be prepositioned are vaccines and antibiotics.

Proactive Deployment

An alternative to prepositioning is the early deployment of assets in advance of a local government request. For example, if government officials  see a hurricane approaching the Gulf of Mexico, they could mobilize food, water, and temporary shelters and stage them close to, but not in, the expected disaster zone so that when these supplies are needed, the lead-time necessary to deliver them is reduced

An Example of Proactive Deployment of Supplies was in the hurricane katrina. Authorities knew that this hurricane would hit the new Orleans zone days in advance  which offered a window for  proactive deployment of supplies. Unfortunately, public authorities tended to be reactive rather than proactive and did not effectively preposition medical supplies prior to the hurricane’s landfall with the well-known consequences. Another proactive deployment solution is to quickly set up facilities for displaced persons. Taking care of the shortage of private goods is one thing, but to house several hundreds and thousands of people is another thing. With correct proactive deployment, shelters can be easily set in order to avoid more tragedies.

Image courtesy of United Nations Photo at
Image courtesy of United Nations Photo at


Phased Deployment

Phased deployment of assets refers to timing the delivery of inventory to a disaster area as it is needed and in the quantity in which it is needed. This type of response is similar to Just in time logistics applied in commercial companies   and has the advantage of not committing excess inventory to a specific region before knowing precise types and quantities of supplies needed.

Phased deployment also prevents the disaster zone from being over supplied or saturated with inbound material that might affect the success of the operation in the long run. For example, after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the lack of runway capacity, as well as equipment, slowed the movement of supplies and specialized personnel such as physicians, nurses, and search and rescue teams. Additionally, there were capacity limitations at the ports, in terms of the number of containers that could be processed and the amount of available dry warehouse space.

Sometimes there are certain events that affect overall efficiency. For example, after the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, there were enough supplies donated by the world’s richest countries, but there was only one airstrip and one forklift in Banda Aceh, the regional capital of Aceh, Indonesia. When disaster strikes an area with limited port capacity, the phased deployment of supplies is not only prudent, but necessary, in order to prevent an interruption on the flow of supplies.

Natural disasters get worse if people and companies helping do not know certain strategies and approaches. Here we have 3 that can help you understand what is happening the next time there is a disaster in the news.

Read more about supply chain management in this article

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