Researching Relief in Haiti

by Michael Mullaney on January 31, 2010


Professor Jose Holguin-Veras has spent the past week in the Dominican Republic, his home country, studying the humanitarian relief efforts taking place in Haiti, which last month was ravaged by a massive 7.0 earthquake centered in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Holguin-Veras is one of the world’s forefront experts in humanitarian logistics, and is working with Dominican and Haitian officials to determine ways of expediting relief efforts for this and future catastrophes. They’ll be looking at what kind of process can be put in place to improve the logistics of delivering aid and emergency supplies when disaster hits.

Following any disaster, Holguin-Veras said, the first response is search and rescue to help find trapped survivors and minimize human casualties. This is followed by the first phase of recovery: determining what critical supplies are needed – usually water, food, and medical supplies – and establishing a supply chain to deliver those goods to those in need.

Haiti, located on the island Hispaniola in the Caribbean, poses a particular challenge. Holguin-Veras said:

You simply cannot transport supplies for 2 million people by plane – it’s impossible.

This is why the Dominican Republic, which shares a border with Haiti and makes up the other two-thirds of the island Hispaniola, has been critical to the recent relief efforts. Much of the relief pouring into Haiti is arriving via the Dominican Republic. Holguin-Veras is on hand to take a careful inventory of the relief policies, procedures, preparations and infrastructure in place, and help analyze what went right and what could be improved upon to prepare for future disasters.

Along with water, food, and medical supplies, Holguin-Veras said the next highest priority for Haiti is equipment to handle supplies, including trucks, forklifts, and cranes.

Another aspect of the research of Holguin-Veras, who also visited New Orleans in 2005 shortly after Hurricane Katrina, is looking at donations, donation patterns, and how monetary donations get used. Jose said:

After a disaster, people often feel compelled to send things they have some attachment to, like clothes. Almost all disasters produce those kinds of donations, which are kind gestures, well intended, but lead to logistical difficulties.

Think of it like this: every box in every plane, boat, or helicopters that is filled with clothes or other sentimental items is not filled with what’s needed most – water, food, and medical supplies.

Jose went on to say:

Not only do they put a stress on the supply chain, the emergency workers then have to content with massive amounts of donations amidst the recovery efforts.

I’m definitely not trying to downplay or criticize anyone’s donations or good intentions. But after any disaster, the best, most effective way to help is by donating money to trusted humanitarian and relief organizations.

Far from discouraging donations, Holguin-Veras said he’s is trying to streamline the logistics behind convergence. He and his research team will use the data collected to further refine advanced mathematical formulations to describe the logistic process, developing short-term forecasting tools to assess the future needs of critical supplies, and creating mechanisms to control the flows of non-critical supplies.

Be sure to check out examples of other supply chain research by Holguin-Veras, including traffic congestion in Manhattan and supply chains in the relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.