January 22, 2013

Slow post-Sandy recovery frustrates supply chain's efforts to gain traction

Efforts moving slower than expected, ALAN officials say.

By DC Velocity Staff

Nearly three months after Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeast United States, the supply chain is struggling to gain the traction needed to help the nation's most populous region get back on its feet.

As the calendar turns, the recovery work that might have otherwise been further along has instead been frustratingly slow to take shape, according to the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), a group formed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to connect disaster relief agencies with individuals, companies and associations looking to provide logistics capabilities and resources to stricken areas.

In New York City, Long Island, and northern and central New Jersey, areas that bore the brunt of Sandy's wrath, there have been few long-term requests for the transport of building materials necessary to support a normal recovery, according to ALAN officials.

"There is progress. It's just not moving as quickly as we hoped," said Kathy Fulton, ALAN's director of operations.

Sandy made landfall along the New Jersey shore on October 29, packing a lethal combination of rain, wind and snow. Dubbed a "superstorm" for its enormous 900-mile width and a near-record low level of barometric pressure, Sandy spawned massive wind gusts, tidal surges, and blizzard conditions that meteorologists said were unheard of for a tropical storm.

Sandy killed more than 200 people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, and caused about $62 billion in damage. It is the second-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history behind Hurricane Katrina, which cost about $125 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Several factors have slowed the recovery process. Bureaucratic red tape has frustrated homeowners and businesses that have filed insurance claims. There is also Congressional delay in appropriating billions in federal dollars. The House of Representatives, which has been sharply criticized for dragging its feet on voting for relief funding, approved $50.7 billion in aid last week, less than the $60.4 billion bill the Senate passed late last year.

As of Monday, however, final legislation had not been sent to President Obama's desk for signature, meaning that it's been 82 days from the storm's first day and its victims have yet to receive federal aid.

Fulton said the funding should brighten the prospects for recovery and get the wheels of commerce grinding again. "Anything that helps boost the economy for the region will improve the supply chain situation," Fulton said.

But the flow of federal funds may do little at this point to help areas so devastated that relief workers are still in "response" mode to provide food and shelter to those who lost everything. There are even some areas of the region still recovering from Hurricane Irene, an August 2011 storm that hit the Northeast and New England with significant flooding but was nowhere near the magnitude of Sandy.

Temporary housing remains inadequate for the densely populated region living in such a wide area affected by Sandy. Even many relief workers can't find shelter, according to ALAN officials. The supply chain's biggest immediate challenge is to find some type of lodging for those workers so they are capable of helping survivors, Fulton said.

Sandy wreaked such widespread devastation that many trucks have not been able to navigate around the rubble to make deliveries. Perhaps the most enduring images of the enormous physical damage are aerial photos of a seemingly endless line of damaged cars parked January 9 at a Long Island air park waiting to be auctioned.

Another issue is how to dispose of thousands of items sitting in a decrepit warehouse in central Islip, Long Island, about 50 miles east of New York City. The facility houses in-kind donations for multiple relief agencies that lack their own warehouse space, and were donated by individuals, businesses and groups from across the nation. The in-kind donation programs for New York and New Jersey are managed by Adventist Community Services, a highly regarded organization that works through memorandums of understanding with the two states.

However, the aging facility has no heat or running water. The building is set for demolition, and Adventist has until Feb. 8 to remove the goods from the warehouse and find homes for them.

Adventist has sufficient material handling equipment to remove the goods from the facility. However, other agencies are facing a void in available lifttrucks. Many lifttrucks were damaged beyond repair by the storm, and there is a lack of adequate replacement quantities, Fulton said.

Today, ALAN is doing what it can to assist in what has become its biggest disaster relief effort since its inception. For example, it is linking relief groups seeking to replace so-called durable medical equipment like examination beds with a medical surplus recycling program, and will also connect the agencies with transportation providers to get the goods to their destinations.

No one knows how quickly or completely the Northeast will recover from Sandy. John T. "Jock" Menzies, ALAN's president, said a full recovery will take three to five years. Yet Menzies characterized Sandy as a "disaster" but not a "catastrophe," the distinction being a catastrophe creates a totally new way of life and commerce, and that the affected region never returns to what it was like prior to the event.

Before Sandy, ALAN's two biggest involvements were the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan. While the two events may have been somewhat similar, the responses couldn't have been more different, Menzies said.

Haiti, a poor country with socio-economic instability, was virtually flattened by its quake, which killed an estimated 230,000. Three years later, about 600,000 Haitians still live in tents, compared with about 750,000 in the disaster's immediate aftermath.

In contrast, Japan, a wealthier, more advanced society with strong cultural homogeneity and proven resiliency in addressing natural disasters, recovered almost fully within three months after the earthquake and tsunami, even though the World Bank listed it as the costliest natural disaster in recorded history at about $235 billion.

The recovery in Japan was so remarkable, Menzies said, that he had difficulty distinguishing photographs taken after the disaster with those that were taken before the quake.

Fulton said the post-Sandy recovery will be "uneven" across the region, and it will depend on the allocation of funds, the level and effectiveness of political leadership, and the involvement of the respective affected communities. Still, the powerful socio-economic forces in the U.S. give it "great capacity to recover" from the disaster.

Menzies said ALAN, like all those involved in Sandy relief efforts, will learn from the disaster, enabling the group to more effectively deal with future events. Of the many challenges confronting logistics planners, he said, the overarching question may be "if we are going to support the building in areas that are susceptible to these kinds of events."

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