Logistics aids distribution of disaster relief

Scientist studies use of logistics and mathematics to improve relief efforts

November 14, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan’s trail of destruction in the Philippines last week is drawing attention to the difficulty of providing relief services in a place where roads, ports, and airports are all but destroyed.

Mathematics and logistics can improve relief efforts like those underway after Typhoon Haiyan plowed through the Philippines, a U.D. scientist says.

Ann Campbell, a professor of management sciences in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, is an expert on transportation logistics, and one of her research focuses is finding more efficient methods for governments, agencies, NGO’s, and businesses to transport relief supplies to disaster areas.

Although her research normally is aimed at business supple chains and commercial activities, she says the same research tools can meet the challenge of disaster logistics.

Campbell is using tools like vehicle routing, which uses mathematical modeling and high-powered computing to develop quicker, more efficient ways to move something from one place to another.

“Humanitarian supply chains are focused on minimizing loss of life and suffering, and distribution is focused on equity and fairness much more than in commercial application,” she said. Campbell started studying disaster logistics after the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in 2004 wiped out a portion of Aceh Island and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Campbell’s current research is helping drivers learn what road are still useable and which have become impassable as a result of the disaster, so that emergency workers will know before leaving the path least likely to be damaged. “In a disaster, it is important to recognize that information on road conditions is slow to come in. Also cell phones usually don’t work so it is important to give drivers as much information as possible before they leave the depot with supplies.”

She said that Haiyan creates a whole new set of circumstances, not the least of which is that much of the damage was caused in remote areas that were difficult to access even before the storm.

One element of disaster logistics that Campbell and others are studying is where to locate pre-positioned supply depots in advance of a storm.

“If you put them too close to the coast, for instance, they might be destroyed by the storm, so you have to put them someplace that’s far enough away to be safe but not so far that it takes too long to get the supplies to the people who need them,” she says.

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