Jan. 8, 2020

New Report Recommends Ways to Strengthen the Resilience of Supply Chains After Hurricanes, Based on Lessons Learned From Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria

WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends ways to make supply chains -- the systems that provide populations with critical goods and services, such as food and water, gasoline, and pharmaceuticals and medical supplies – more resilient in the face of hurricanes and other disasters, drawing upon lessons learned from the 2017 hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Requested by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the report urges FEMA and other organizations to focus more on restoring regular supply chains as soon as possible after a hurricane, and less on the traditional approach of using parallel emergency relief supply chains for an extended period of time.  Other critical strategies are to strengthen emergency managers’ understanding of local supply chain dynamics, improve information-sharing and coordination among public and private stakeholders, and provide training to emergency managers on supply-chain dynamics and best practices.  

“In 2017 Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria revealed some significant vulnerabilities in national and regional supply chains,” said James Featherstone, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and executive director of the Los Angeles Homeland Security Advisory Council.  “Lessons learned from these hurricanes can inform future strategies to improve supply chain management.”

For the study, the committee held meetings in four locations affected by the 2017 storms – Houston; Miami; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. In each location they heard from federal, state, and local public officials and managers, private sector stakeholders, and others involved in maintaining the functionality of supply chains before, during, and after the storms. This input, together with engagement with additional experts and a case study analysis performed by the CNA Institute for Public Research, informed the committee’s deliberations.

Although the contexts and experiences of the storm-affected areas were diverse, some common dynamics unfolded, the report says. For example, in most places, emergency managers’ understanding of post-storm bottlenecks in supply chains was constrained by limited pre-storm assessment of vulnerable and critical parts of supply chains, together with information disruptions resulting from power and communication loss. And a common source of bottlenecks in supply chains was unsolicited donations sent to affected areas, which drew critical resources away from more strategically targeted needs. 

The report recommends that FEMA and other organizations take the following steps to increase the resilience of supply chains:

Shift the focus from pushing relief supplies to ensuring that regular supply chains are restored as rapidly as possible. In the aftermath of a disaster, if normal supply chains are unable to supply critical items, relief supply chains are established in parallel by FEMA and other organizations to temporarily replace or supplement regular systems. In the hours and days immediately following a disaster, these can be life-saving and are often critical. But flooding an area with relief supplies for an extended period can have the unintended effect of delaying the area’s recovery, because relief supply chains often rely on contracting local resources – such as trucks, ships, and delivery drivers – that are the same resources needed by local businesses to get their supply chains back to normal.

The traditional focus on providing relief supplies should therefore be augmented with a focus on understanding the causes of unmet demand – that is, identifying bottlenecks, gaps, and broken links in local supply chains – and pursuing strategic interventions to assist local stakeholders in returning regular supply chains to normal operations as quickly as possible.

Build system-level understanding of supply chain dynamics as a foundation for effective decision-making. When planning for and responding to a hazardous event, emergency managers must quickly make numerous critical decisions about how to prioritize resources and actions. Making such decisions wisely and strategically requires having a big-picture, system-scale understanding of the supply chains operating within an area.

Before a disaster strikes, it is important to understand how supply and demand drive the flow of critical goods and services into an area, how hurricanes and other disruptions can affect those flows, and interdependencies among different parts of the supply chain. During and after a disaster, there is a need for real-time information about unfolding impacts that affect local supply chains – for example, what roads are blocked, and what businesses are damaged or closed – and the capacity of local stakeholders to respond to these impacts. Modeling frameworks could integrate these complex data streams and extract useful information to support decisions.

Support mechanisms for coordination, information-sharing, and preparedness among supply chain stakeholders. The greatest opportunities for building resilience come from preparedness efforts undertaken before disasters strike. Among the factors most critical for building supply chain resilience are clearly defined processes and mechanisms for coordination and information sharing – especially across levels of government and across public and private sector organizations. A lack of such mechanisms can lead to duplication of efforts, gaps in service delivery, confusion over ownership of issues, and competition for scarce resources. Engagement must begin well before a disaster occurs, because it takes time to establish the needed relationships and trust.

Develop and administer training on supply chain dynamics and best practices for private-public partnerships that enhance supply chain resilience. Many individuals engaged in emergency response have had little or no direct experience working with private sector entities or training specifically for evaluating a disaster’s impacts on local supply chains. To rectify this situation, education and training related to basic supply chain dynamics should be provided to emergency managers and those supporting operations in a disaster environment. 

As FEMA’s internal capacity and expertise on supply chain dynamics grows, the agency can play an increasingly valuable role assisting states, local communities, the private sector, and other stakeholders with technical assistance and guidance, the report says. While FEMA cannot be responsible for carrying out all of these activities, it can provide leadership for convening, coordinating, and empowering key partners.

The study — undertaken by the Committee on Building Adaptable and Resilient Supply Chains After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria — was sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

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