Public sector looks to freight industry for help with disaster response

Hurricane flooding and winds with palm trees and houses
Photo: Shutterstock

Natural disaster response traditionally has been the responsibility of the public sector, but private companies have the potential to make relief efforts faster and more cost-effective. Integrating the two, however, requires balancing efficiency with fairness, and coordinating among so many different organizations requires fluid communication.

The 22nd Annual Freight and Logistics Symposium, held in December in Minneapolis, explored how the public and private sectors can and should work together to respond to natural disasters that cause disruptions in the freight system. Speakers from both sectors discussed the potential for leveraging public-private partnerships and presented details from recent large-scale natural disasters to provide insights on response, recovery, and resiliency.

In the keynote presentation, Jeffrey Dorko, assistant administrator for logistics at the FEMA Office of Response and Recovery, explained that the private-public relationship in disaster response is still being figured out. “America has great, almost limitless capacity to take care of citizens who just had their worst day. But we’ve got to get what we need from where it is to where it needs to be,” he said.

During a disaster, distributing supplies is typically more of an issue than finding them, Dorko noted, and private companies often have this well planned out in advance. Public organizations such as FEMA need to consider these existing supply chains and refrain from getting in their way, he added. “We need to get business back to business,” he said. 

Dorko and other symposium speakers also covered the following major topics:

  • The role of the private sector during a disaster. The private-sector freight industry could increase the speed and efficiency of disaster relief, in terms of shipping capacity as well as planning and logistics. But efficiency needs to be balanced with fairness to avoid disasters being used as a means for profit. Speakers from the public and private sectors discussed both sides of the issue.
  • Communication and planning during a disaster. When disaster strikes, effective communication and planning systems are as essential as speedy response. Presenters used Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as an example of what happens when these systems break down. They also discussed what problems still exist in the freight industry and how to fix them.
  • Climate change and resiliency. Alterations in extreme weather patterns as a result of climate change are a major concern for transportation agencies, and infrastructure changes are needed to ensure the system can handle increased stress. Presenters examined some of the setbacks currently facing infrastructure resilience in the United States as well as some promising initiatives led by the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the federal government.
  • The importance of data and issues with sharing. In our digital world, GPS, traffic cameras, and other technology are making it increasingly easy to track and model traffic flow. Sharing this data has become key to effective disaster relief. Presenters discussed potential sources and applications of data and how issues with privacy and proprietary information might be addressed.


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Michael McCarthy