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Planning key in disaster relief

BY MITCHELL SCHMIDT | JANUARY 27, 2010 7:30 AM

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Ann Campbell has a passion for disaster relief.

The UI associate professor of management sciences has researched relief logistics since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.

During that disaster, she became curious how the refugees received help during difficult times, a process that can sometimes take longer than expected.

“I wanted to know why there were so many delays,” she said.

Campbell’s research focuses on the disaster-relief sector of logistics in dangerous situations such as the floods of 2008 and, more recently, Haiti’s record earthquake.

While commercial businesses look at price as the chief concern, in disaster situations, the focus is on being fair and fast in supply distribution, Campbell said.

When it comes to natural disasters, the key to a good response is good planning, because most forms of communication are destroyed, she said.

Planning methods include where supplies will be stored, who will distribute the necessities, and which mean of transportation will work best for the situation. In Haiti, relief efforts had to factor in security, an aspect not usually of high importance during a disaster, she said.

“You’re better off the more you have planned,” she said.

One organization, the American Red Cross, specifically emphasizes preparation when uncontrollable natural disasters occur.

“Once something does happen, we kick it into high gear,” said Jennifer Pickar, the director of communications for the Grant Wood Red Cross chapter in Cedar Rapids.

Part of its preparation plan is acquiring partners and businesses to transport supplies and provide shelter for refugees. Teamwork is vital, Pickar said.

“One organization can’t do it all,” she said.

One group that helps with relief efforts, the Iowa-1 Federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team, holds annual training drills to prepare for the unexpected.

When disaster hits, members of the organization act as a medical base treating, transporting, or releasing victims.

“It looks like a MASH team and acts like an emergency room,” said Dave Wilson, the team’s commander.

Despite training with yearly faux disasters, he emphasized that not all events can be anticipated.

“The best-laid plans always get altered,” he said.

When an emergency occurs locally, the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division collaborates with all state entities to decide who will take action, said Lt. Col. Greg Hapgood, the public-affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard.

“Think of an orchestra — they’re like the conductor,” Hapgood noted.

Hapgood said the National Guard could be called in for assistance but that move is usually a last resort because the National Guard is a federal entity and soldiers must be paid.

The National Guard has resources that other organizations lack, though, including helicopters and large fleets of trucks.

But what it really takes for fast relief is experienced officials, who often gain that knowledge from helping in a real-life disasters, such as the floods of 2008.

“As a state, we received so many lessons from that,” he said.


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