Following the devastation caused by hurricane Dorian over The Bahamas, Keith Mwanalushi looks at the complex logistics behind the airlift of supplies to affected communities.

    On 1 September 2019, hurricane Dorian made its first landfall on Elbow Cay, in the Abacos of the north western Bahamas as a Category 5 storm.

    Its second landfall on Great Abaco Island near Marsh Harbour followed shortly after. The islands were battered by hurricane Dorian for more than 48 hours. Initial reports indicate catastrophic damage occurred with upwards of 76,000 people impacted.

    Volga Dnepr

    DHL’s Disaster Response Team (DRT) made up of employee volunteers leapt into action by 5 September to receive and unload the first widebody charter plane carrying Hurricane Dorian relief supplies, supplying 34 tonnes of cargo.

    Additional cargo aircraft soon followed. The DRT, comprised of 11 employees from DHL Express, DHL Global Forwarding and DHL Supply Chain, provided more than 1,650 volunteer hours on the ground in Nassau.

    Gilberto Castro, senior director of operation, DHL Express Colombia and DRT programme manager for the Americas, explains that the main objective of DHL’s response team in The Bahamas was to support the offload of arriving international aid from various NGOs, such as the World Food Programme (WFP), International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC), Salvation Army, and others.

    He says the team was also assigned to The Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) warehouse facility to help coordinate inventory and organise the incoming relief aid at the warehouse.

    As the storm finally veered north, Dorian’s impact became known and relief efforts began. US carrier Delta and its Delta Connection partner Endeavor Air operated eight flights between 8 September and 12, carrying more than 85,000 pounds of supplies and evacuating more than 500 survivors from Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco Island and Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, to Nassau.

    “Coordinating the humanitarian efforts was no easy feat,” comments Vishal Bhatnagar, the director of Delta’s Cargo Control Centre. Especially when operating a mainline aircraft into two airports closed as a result of severe infrastructure damage – airports usually served by Delta’s smaller regional fleet.

    “We worked closely with local authorities and US and Bahamian government agencies to get these planes loaded with supplies off the ground to help those in need,” he states.

    Delta teams secured landing rights in The Bahamas for the next several days, as demand was assessed, and local law enforcement and military assisted with unloading supplies and boarding passengers. Delta worked closely with local authorities to understand what supplies would be best utilised and where the aircraft was needed to transport survivors.

    Hurricane Dorian: airlifting relief supplies, logistics
    Runway conditions and weight limitations are critical factors

    Emergency preparedness

    Robert A. Jenson, chairman at Kenyon International, the disaster response services specialist, emphasises the importance of working closely with the authorities:

    “The first thing for airline and cargo operators, especially the smaller ones, is to be part of your local, state or national recovery plan. Let them know what your capabilities and requirements are.

    Have a relationship with the authorities whether it’s the office for emergency services or the disaster planning office and say here are our capabilities, here is how we can assist you and these are our requirements,” he advises.

    To date, Delta Cargo has sent about 100,000lbs of relief supplies on 21 flights. Supplies brought to The Bahamas ranged from water, non-perishable food, formula, diapers and clothing to generators and household products.

    “We continue to collect supplies in our warehouses and will do what we can to support The Bahamas,” says Bhatnagar.

    Despite the sudden nature of some calamities, there is always some forward planning that can be done. Before the storm made landfall, DHL’s DRT members began contacting some of the NGOs that had arrived on the island ahead of the storm to begin setting up their operations.

    “Before DHL’s DRT even arrived on the island, we began coordinating airport ramp operations and warehouse coordination with the NGOs,” says Castro.

    Bhatnagar says Delta did some advance planning, too: “We created a cargo team of experts and routed all requests to a single point of contact. We worked with the TSA [US Transport Security Administration] to get security clearance for supplies and had an expert advising us on hazmat categories on what we can or can’t ship.”

    Response to an incident is about the right resources at the right place. Jenson stresses that most carriers will have advance planning in place.

    He also says coordination between the air carrier and the authorities managing the airspace and airports is vital: “If you are going to bring in an aircraft, you have to know what runway is available, the conditions, and how much weight you are going to put on the aircraft.”

    He says several other aspects should be considered, including the uplift of fuel and where this will take place.

    Airlink, a rapid-response humanitarian relief organisation that connects airlines and NGOs went into full swing following Dorian. Steven J. Smith, president and CEO, says Airlink has developed regional plans to help prepare for responses in specific regions of the world, including the Caribbean.

    “We work to understand the capabilities of our response partners, establish relationships with airlines uniquely positioned to respond in the region, and identify likely needs prior to disaster.

    “Hurricane Dorian was extremely slow-moving and its projected path put not only The Bahamas on alert, but also most of the US southeast. Several days before the storm made landfall, we began moving relief workers into communities in the projected path or to staging areas being used for coordination.”

    With support from Airlink’s airline partners and other donors, the organisation has transported more than 600 relief workers and 62,000lbs of aid for nearly 30 humanitarian relief organisations responding to hurricane Dorian.

    “Additionally, in our role as a convener of non-profit response partners, we supported information sharing platforms allowing partners to communicate about hard-to-reach communities, unmet needs and identify opportunities for collaboration in real time.” Smith adds.

    Hurricane Dorian: Nassau and Houston United
    Nassau and Houston United ramp agents unload palettes of disaster aid from a United Airlines flight from George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas

    Getting supplies in

    Getting supplies to the disaster zone is usually only the beginning. Getting them into the communities affected is sometimes where the supply chain breaks down. Responding to disasters occurring in island chains always poses unique “last mile” challenges.

    “In this case, we were able to transport supplies to the capital city Nassau,” says Smith. From there, aid organisations relied on boats, small private airplanes and helicopters in the early days to transport supplies to the most heavily impacted areas.

    “In our coordinating role, we were able to connect aid organisations with other Airlink partners like YachtAid to help with that transport.

    “Through donor support and a new relationship with Bahamasair, we also are providing our aid organisation partners with inter-island passenger flights to ensure a sustained response to impacted communities as this response begins to transition into the recovery phase.”

    The management of aid coming from response organisations and other sources is a large task, as Smith admits. “Well publicised, large disasters often elicit an outpouring of public support. Ideally, that support comes in the form of cash so aid organisations can procure the supplies needed for the response.”

    He explains that in some cases, members of the public with good intentions act by sending supplies themselves. “If those supplies don’t match the needs or are not assigned to entities on the ground that can distribute them effectively, communities can be overwhelmed, and distribution impeded.”

    In this response, Airlink partners like Team Rubicon and Rescue Global provided critical coordination support and organised distribution of supplies for other organisations and government entities like the National Emergency Management Agency.

    “Our partner Fuel Relief Fund brought and managed fuel supplies on the islands to support the mobility and work of responders. These organisations provide important logistics support that ensures needs in remote areas are identified, available resources are inventoried, and distribution channels to those most in need are established,” Smith continues.

    For DHL, the first challenge was to get the Nassau ramp area ready to offload incoming cargo aircraft and to help coordinated transport processes to move incoming international aid to safe warehouses or storage locations.

    Castro says: “Initially we were only able to bring in relief aid through the Nassau airport as no other airport was operational for cargo planes and the ports had not been evaluated and opened to begin coordinating the transfer of relief aid by ocean to Abaco, Freeport and Marsh Harbour.”

    Coordinating humanitarian efforts can be challenging, getting supplies off the ground as quickly and as efficiently as possible is extremally critical. Bhatnagar from Delta says having a team in place and directing all requests to a single point of contact was invaluable to ensure that they kept track of all the requests.

    Every natural disaster is different in so many ways and each situation differs depending on the infrastructure of the country that is impacted. “There have been many lessons learned for those in disaster response fields since hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in 2017,” Castro recalls.

    The Caribbean islands are developed mostly for tourists and tourism is the main source of income for most of these islands and the infrastructure on most of the islands are hotels and ports.

    When a major disaster impacts a Caribbean island, the main challenges to providing humanitarian aid logistics is airport infrastructure itself.

    The lack of ground handling equipment to offload cargo aircraft, airport ramp limitations and the lack of secure warehouse storage facilities can be a significant hindrance to providing an optimised humanitarian response.