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Expanding Disaster Logistics Curricula in Academia

Start a Transportation and Logistics Management degree at American Military University.

By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Military University

When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami hit Thailand, one of our logistics professors at the University of Alaska Anchorage was on Christmas vacation there in a beachfront hotel. We lost track of him for three weeks. When he finally contacted us at the university, he reported on a disaster in the logistics area.

He said there were mountains of relief boxes and pallets of relief goods, water, food, medicine and clothing just piling up. The people in charge of distribution seemed to be sitting around, waiting for orders from someone who was hard to find.

That same professor was also there when the first American helicopters landed with relief items. The relief pilots asked who was in charge. Getting only vague answers, each pilot took charge of a number of boxes of water and gave orders for truck drivers to deliver the water and food. When our professor returned to Alaska, we developed a successful course in disaster logistics based on his Thailand experience.

Years later, around 2010, I met Dr. Paul Williams, who was a member of a church-based network of disaster aid providers. We met several times to discuss the creation of a disaster logistics curriculum when I was Program Director at American Public University’s Transportation and Logistics Management bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Dr. Williams Taught Me that All Disaster Logistics Aid Plans Fail at Times

During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Dr. Williams and his church members flew relief aid to victims by landing on unbroken roads outside the devastation area. Dr. Williams introduced me to the idea that all disaster logistics aid plans fail. Since the Thailand and Haiti disasters, and most recently the devastation Hurricane Maria wrought on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, it does seem that disaster plans do fail.

The trick, however, is to know for how long those plans are unsuccessful. Will disaster logistics plans for aid to victims of a flood, fire, tsunami or hurricane fail for one day, three days or three months? What is the definition of failure? My definition of disaster relief failure is when there are still victims who need help to survive and get to safety.

Dr. Williams’s book, “When All Plans Fail,” provides a philosophy, a mindset and blueprints for communities to work with government and non-government organizations to help disaster victims. He even has a checklist of items for disaster preparedness for use at home. One of his messages is, “Store what you eat; eat what you store.”

What is unfolding in Puerto Rico is another logistics disaster. During the Hurricane Maria recovery effort, it became obvious that disaster logistics efforts were not going as planned, just as Dr. Williams had predicted.

The images of long lines of families waiting hours or all day for a few bottles of water should prompt better planning for the next disaster, just as officials in New Orleans did after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Hurricane Maria Recovery Efforts Are Creating Additional Victims in Puerto Rico

The disaster in Puerto Rico has created more victims from the “mounds of soaked garbage mixed with mud, trees and sometimes dead animals” reports ArcaMax, a provider of news and syndicated features. There is also the threat of “kidney damage, liver failure and meningitis” that could come from “leptospirosis – a bacterial infection caused by rodent urine tainting the water from springs.”

When we think about disaster logistics, we have to consider that such activities are complex and recovery may take years.

Planning to prepare for and prevent a disaster is logistics. Responding to a disaster and recovering from it is reverse logistics. Reverse logistics begin when something is broken, unwanted or not working.

Disaster Logistics Is a Subject Ripe for Discussions and Analysis

Disaster logistics has elements that can cross over into different curricula. The subject is ripe for discussions and analysis of case studies on preparing for and planning in academic programs such as Transportation and Logistics Management or Reverse Logistics Management. Other areas worthy of discussion include:

  • Government contracting
  • Retail management
  • Business administration
  • Accounting
  • Nursing
  • Homeland Security
  • Leadership

The aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and Louisiana create case studies for developing curricula thinking. If the U.S. faces increased disasters, then the government and private industries will look for employees who can address logistics needs and assist with insurance claims processing.

Maybe it is time to revise our curricula in these areas. We need to produce students who can understand the unknowns that come with natural disasters.

Start a Transportation and Logistics Management degree at American Military University.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Military University (AMU). He is the former program director of two academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management Program and Transportation and Logistics Management Program. Dr. Hedgepeth was a tenured associate professor of Logistics and chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He has published two books, RFID Metrics and How Grandma Braided the Rain.