MIT Researchers Respond to Hurricanes Irma and Maria

MIT Researchers Respond to Hurricanes Irma and Maria

MIT’s Humanitarian Response Lab helps to coordinate private and public sector responses to natural disasters such as Hurricane Irma.

As Hurricane Irma approached the Caribbean, public and private supply chains already affected and stretched thin by Hurricane Harvey had to ramp up again. Coordination was even more critical in order to leverage all available logistics capacity in meeting human needs. MIT’s Humanitarian Response Lab joined the effort, operating from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington D.C. to support supply chain decision-making across public and private sectors.

Based within the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics (CTL), the Humanitarian Response Lab works to improve the supply chain systems behind public services and private markets to improve crisis response. As Hurricane Irma strengthened in the Atlantic, Lab members drew from the large network of CTL corporate partners and alumni to gather intelligence on private sector capabilities post-Harvey.

The day before Irma made landfall, Dr. Jarrod Goentzel, Director of the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab, arrived and began working closely with the National Business Emergency Operations Center (NBEOC) and FEMA Logistics Management Directorate to help restore the supply of goods into areas that were affected by the storm.

According to Dr. Goentzel, “Our Lab has been a member of the NBEOC since 2014 and has actively engaged MIT students with the FEMA logistics team on projects in recent years,” said Goentzel. “We saw an opportunity to accelerate the exchange of operational information between FEMA and companies in the MIT network during this emergency.”

Tim Russell, a research scientist in the Lab, soon joined to help gather, analyze, and share information that is critical in getting supplies moving after the storm, such as road conditions and closures, access into affected locations, and fuel supply for the return trip. Faster access to such information helps companies accelerate their efforts to resume business operations.

In return, information about private sector capabilities and constraints helps FEMA leaders prioritize its efforts to support businesses and provide supplies directly, where needed. The MIT team analyzed supply chain data from companies working to make critical commodities – such as water, food, and fuel – accessible soon after the storm passed. To assist with situational awareness, the team developed maps of major fuel retailers and grocery distribution centers in the state of Florida.

“We continually strive to better support the private sector in unleashing its extensive supply chain capacity during emergencies,” said Jeffery Dorko, Assistant Administrator for Logistics at FEMA. “During Irma, the MIT team enabled rapid analysis and exchange of critical information with operational teams in companies. We look to build on this approach moving forward.”

Fuel for transportation and generators is always critical following a disaster, but it was especially important for long haul trucks headed for southern Florida that needed to refuel. As a result, the team focused heavily on assurance of fuel supply, specifically targeting companies running the large chains of highway travel centers.

According to Dr. Goentzel, “Understanding how service centers are recovering amidst the storm was important because companies needed to know if they sent their trucks down to disaster zones, would service centers have enough fuel supply for the trucks to refill and return?  Would FEMA have to send fuel down to the affected areas?  FEMA, at the State of Florida’s request, did end up setting up a parallel network of fuel stations at community colleges.”

Not long after Hurricane Irma swept through the Carribbean and southeast United States, Hurricane Maria wrought havoc in Puerto Rico, leaving millions without power, without roads, and without homes.  Again, MIT’s Humanitarian Response Lab was back at FEMA headquarters at their National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) working to establish connections between government and private sector around supply chain issues.

Along with the American Logistics Aid Network (ALAN) and LIFT, a non-profit logistics provider for foundations and NGOs, MIT led coordination calls with dozens of companies from the private sector to exchange information to improve logistics operations given the severly damaged Puerto Rican infrastructure.  Out of these calls came a coordinated air bridge to San Juan airport, with the first shipment including essential communications equipment for AT&T mobile networks.

Michael Windle, a research associate in the Lab who worked out of FEMA headquarters, likened the air bridge to a rideshare service.  He said, “To aid companies providing critical commodities to Puerto Rico after the hurricane, a rideshare system was set up to deliver relief cargo.  Private sector firms would consolidate cargo at specific airports and terminals, for example in Miami, and a dedicated flight would leave for San Juan.  And if we could identify flights that had excess space or additional weight capacity, we would coordinate with FEMA and the private sector to utilize that space.”

At the NRCC, members of the Humanitarian Response Lab also worked with FEMA’s Fuel Crisis Action Planning Team.  According to Dr. Goentzel, “Typically, in a disaster situation, certain facilities such as hospitals and ports maintain power supply through fuel supply provided by the government for generators.  However, other critical facilities in industries such as communications, sanitation, and retail operations may remain without power for weeks, severely extending the time it takes for the impacted area to recover.  Our team provided a longterm analysis of fuel distribution capability needed to power these generators.”

As the Humanitarian Response Lab continues to work with FEMA to provide relief following disasters, they are especially interested in engaging with the CTL Supply Chain Exchange partner companies in a deeped operational dialogue during emergencies.  In early December, the Humanitarian Response Lab in the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics is hosting a symposium to convene supply chain leaders from the public and private sectors to share experiences, develop insights, and explore how better information sharing and resource coordination can accelerate the restoration of business operations that serve disaster-affected populations.

This article first appeared in MIT News.

For more information on the MIT Humanitarian Response Lab contact the Lab’s Founder and Director Dr. Jarrod Goentzel at:


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