University of Iowa professor advises on disaster relief logistics

Disasters like the super typhoon that bowled over the Philippines last week, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands, are at the heart of University of Iowa professor Ann Campbell’s research.

As a management sciences professor with the Tippie College of Business, Campbell studies transportation logistics — specifically focusing on finding more efficient ways to transport relief supplies to disaster zones.

And her research has taught her just how hard it can be to get help to those who most desperately need it.

“It’s different when it involves a disaster,” Campbell said.

There’s a lot more at stake, and a lot more to overcome, according to Campbell. Not only are there traditional logistical hurdles – like finding efficient routes – but transportation, communication and supply issues can become insurmountable, Campbell said.

Traditional supply chains take years to coordinate and perfect – consider Walmart’s efforts to supply its stores with product every day.

“They did not develop that over night,” she said. “But when what happened in the Philippines happens, you have to figure it out over night. There is zero in place.”

Aid workers have to find suppliers, communicate with recipients and operate around infrastructure damage to save people desperately needing food, water and shelter.

“Speed is a big issue,” she said

And so is communication, with disasters like Typhoon Haiyan wiping out cellular infrastructure. Campbell said the Philippines’ coastal location also makes aid response a challenge – necessitating functioning airports and boats to even get close to the devastated regions.

“Hurricane Katrina was terrible, but at least you could load up an 18-wheeler and start driving down supplies from Iowa,” Campbell said. “How do you get supplies to the Philippines when they have one airport serving a lot of people? The complexity and logistics just get worse and worse.”

Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Pacific island nation on Nov. 8, reportedly killed more than 4,400 people, injured more than 12,100 people, displaced more than 900,000 and left more than 1,000 missing.  A week after the deadly typhoon, international responders on Friday still were battling clogged airports, blocked roads and lack of manpower, according to news reports.

Campbell, through her research, said there are some new ideas on how to mitigate the complexities that come with getting aid to disaster zones. She is developing a way to use mathematical modeling and high-powered computing to develop quicker and more efficient ways to route vehicles.

The process aims to inform disaster relief drivers on which roads remain usable and which roads are impassable to speed up delivery times. Campbell said it also can be helpful – although not traditionally efficient – to send out multiple trucks at once in hopes of reaching more people quickly.

She said disasters should teach us to prepare and pre-stock supplies – like the American Red Cross does during hurricane season in the United States.

“That’s not something every government and ever state does,” she said. “But you can access things faster if you do that.”

Campbell became interested in disaster relief logistics after the Indonesian tsunami in 2004, and her research became increasingly relevant when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005 and again when Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2010.

The Haitian disaster taught us, among other things, that disaster aid should be prioritized.

“Haiti had one airport, and they were letting some planes land that didn’t have the most important things on them,” she said.

Typhoon Haiyan poses its own set of challenges, she said, also highlighting the need to have prepared and flexible leaders.

“The fact that it’s only accessible by boat and a few airports makes it so much harder,” she said. “You have to have the right people in charge.”