When John T. "Jock" Menzies, president of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), visited earthquake-ravaged Haiti in late March, he had an abstract idea of what he would encounter.
Being face to face with the reality was another matter.
The capital of Port-au-Prince and the Western city of Leogane at the quake's epicenter each resembled, to Menzies, a modern-day Dante's Inferno. Large areas of both cities were covered in dust, he said, the residue from pulverized structures, exhaust from burning diesel fuel, and huge rubbish fires set in a desperate effort to incinerate waste that otherwise would have been routed through now-ruined sanitation systems.
Menzies saw streets choked with rubble and makeshift housing—with crude roofs often made out of cloth—erected next to destroyed homes. He witnessed mountains of trash and litter being picked over by humans and animals alike. He saw roads hopelessly clogged by merchant storefronts that had literally been moved off their sidewalk moorings and into the street. Traffic in Port-au-Prince was at a standstill most of days he was there, Menzies noted. At night, the capital's streets would be transformed into ghostly thoroughfares with the movement of stray individuals and motorbikes barely visible through the eerie gloaming.
For Menzies, who returned to the United States March 28 after a weeklong trip to meet with non-governmental agencies (NGOs) working with ALAN, the images were searing. "You know what to expect, but until you touch it and smell it, you just don't get it," he said.
Three months after the Jan. 12 quake that left approximately 230,000 dead and 750,000 homeless, Haiti remains a basket case of near-epic proportions. Water treatment systems lie in ruins and drainage canals have been badly compromised, raising fears that flooding during Haiti's traditional April-May rainy season and possible summer hurricanes to follow might trigger another humanitarian disaster. Nearly 2,000 schools, hospitals, and health centers have been destroyed. About 25 million cubic yards of debris lie scattered, enough rubble to cover Washington, D.C.'s National Mall to a height of 700 feet, according to a report in The Washington Post. To put the magnitude of the damage in perspective, the Washington Monument is 555 feet high.
In addition, Haiti's central government has been, in Menzies' words, "decapitated" both in terms of leadership and infrastructure.
The bureaucratic void has created chaos. For example, the government requires NGOs to submit written reports chronicling the situation and their needs. However, it lacks the resources and manpower to process the paperwork. As a result, NGO representatives must re-hash their findings in face-to-face meetings with government officials often conducted in a linguistic cacophony of English, French, and Creole.
Supply chain getting back on track
After an initially nightmarish start when relief supplies would arrive in Haiti by air and then be abandoned in random locations because there were no consignees to sign for them, the supply chain has made positive strides, Menzies said. Today, goods flow relatively freely into the Port of Haiti and Port-au-Prince International Airport, though airport capacity remains tight relative to the enormous demand, he said. Most shipments are properly signed for and reach their intended destinations, though ground deliveries in the country remain an adventure, Menzies said.
And yet there are anecdotes that remind Menzies of the yawning logistical gaps that still exist. In one refugee camp, medical personnel used their personal credit cards to buy food and water because the relief supplies on hand were inadequate.
For ALAN, which was created in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina to serve as a conduit between the resources of the logistics community and disaster relief agencies needing supply chain support, Haiti was the largest-scale disaster it has yet confronted. Menzies said he has been satisfied with ALAN's response and performance. Still, he acknowledges there were areas that need improvement.
For example, ALAN could be more precise and focused in connecting logistics companies, relief groups, and the needs at hand, he said. Menzies also found that while the leading NGOs had solid knowledge of the nuances of international logistics, the second-tier organizations, for the most part, did not. "One of our jobs is to help point [the secondary groups] in the right direction and support them with the necessary resources," he said.
Menzies knows that, sadly, there will be another time and place for ALAN's services. For now, though, the attention remains focused on Haiti, which he said would not be restored to pre-quake conditions for at least three years. A group called Hands On Disaster Relief (HODR) recently asked ALAN to help find a volunteer with warehouse management and logistics experience to serve as a consultant in Leogane during May. HODR has established a Joint Logistics Base in Leogane, about one hour from Port-au-Prince. The base will support the operations of various relief agencies active in the area, it said.
Menzies and the thousands of relief workers with boots on the ground in Haiti share one common fear: that the world has already put Haiti in the rear-view mirror and in short order, will forget about the misery that still very much plagues its people. "The attention to disaster relief anywhere in the world quickly falls off," he said. "People will say to themselves, 'Well, we've done enough,' and they then move on to the next issue. It would be a tragedy if that happened here."
Three months after a devastating earthquake, Haiti remains in terrible crisis. For companies still looking to lend supply chain resources or expertise to the task in Haiti or that want to be ready when the next disaster strikes, John T. "Jock" Menzies, head of the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN), offers the following suggestions: