Waiting: the hardest part

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Our job is to respond quickly and get supplies to those who need it most … but it’s not an easy task in Haiti.” –John Vera, health & safety manager for United Parcel Service‘s Americas Region

It’s difficult to truly comprehend the extent of the horror occurring in Haiti right now: 200,00-plus dead, their bodies decaying in the rubble; the lack and food, water, shelter, and medical care that’s making life almost unendurable for the survivors; and the grim recognition that it may take over a decade for one of the most impoverished countries on earth to regain even the wretched pittance that existed before an earthquake registering 7.0 of the Richter scale made everything so much worse.

[You can see what the devastation looks like in the clip below, from video shot by Reuters and shown on CBS News. There’s an 11-second advertisement before the film starts rolling and I caution you, it’s not pretty.]

And yet … U.S. logisticians are ready to go to Haiti, knowing full well the terrible tragedy that awaits them; ready to do what they can to try and bring that country back to a semblance of normalcy.

John Vera is one such person; health & safety manager for United Parcel Service‘s Americas Region that serves on one of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) Logistics Emergency Teams (LETs). He’s down in Miami, FL, right now, awaiting word from the WFP as to when and where he and his fellow LET members go into action on Haiti.

I talked with Vera late Friday and you could already tell the waiting was getting to him. The earthquake that hit Haiti Jan. 13 – generating more energy than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to experts – wreaked havoc not only on the 9.7 million human population but on that nation’s infrastructure, already brittle at best.

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The airport at the country’s only major city, Port-au-Prince, is hopelessly jammed – so much so that one U.S. Air Force C-17 transport flying from North Carolina dropped more than 55,000 pounds of supplies, including 6,900 bottles of water and more than 42,000 packets of combat rations, about five miles northeast of Port-au-Prince.

Capt. John Kirby, a spokesman for the U.S. Joint Task Force Haiti, told CNN that "literally hundreds" of flights are trying to land at Port-au-Prince airfield – and airport, however, that has "one tarmac, one runway, one ramp for all the aircraft."

"It is a sheer volume issue," he told CNN. "There are more planes that want to land here than we can accommodate in any given hour."

That’s the biggest problem LETs face, UPS's Vera told me; you’re trying to transport vitally needed humanitarian aid to a place that lacks the very means necessary to support effective transportation of any kind.

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“Many of the major roads in Haiti aren’t even paved; most of them are dirt roads,” he said. “It’s difficult to get trucks out of the city to get the relief supplies where they are needed most.”

Vera is no stranger to any of this, either; he’s been to Haiti before two years ago when that island nation got slammed by hurricanes and flooding. “The level of poverty in Haiti is truly eye-opening,” he said, his calm words belying what must have been a huge shock. “I’ve been all over the world working for UPS; I’ve been to a lot of rough spots. But Haiti is one of the poorest places I’ve ever seen.”

He recounted watching a 5-year child trudging home one evening, struggling to pull two one-gallon cans of kerosene necessary to help cook food. “It’s so disheartening to see that,” he told me.

Yet even amid such desolation – made all the worse by epic natural disasters – the human spirit never failed to rise to the occasion, Vera stressed.

“We came in off the choppers [helicopters] one day to deliver relief supplies, and I saw this 13 year old boy sitting there,” he recalled. “I had this snack bag of chips, so I called him over and gave them to him. He got very teary eyed and thanked me – then proceeded to share the contents of that snack mix with as many people as he could.”

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Vera is still struck but the selflessness of a teenager – obviously hungry, if not malnourished – sharing a gift of food he could readily have kept to himself. “It didn’t matter how dire the situation was; that kid had enough heart to share. That confirmed to me there’s still a lot of hope left for humanity.”

That’s why the waiting is so grueling – knowing the aid and logistics expertise is ready to go, but the situation on the ground might not allow it to get delivered.

“That’s the biggest challenge in the emergency logistics world – you want to go head first, full blast forward, to get the job done; to get the aid delivered,” Vera told me. “But you MUST remember to go slow. You need to keep an open mind; listen to the expertise that’s been on the ground and the other parties involved. You need to pick the best solution to get the job done right. We’re all there for one reason – to help. We’ve got to make sure we do so.”

He pointed to his experiences on Haiti in 2008 as an example. “First and foremost, you’ve got this tremendous series of language barriers – not just the Haiti form of French, mind you, but the Italians, Germans, Pakistanis and whomever else might be on the ground,” Vera explained. “We all must communicate to get the job done – that can be a tremendous difficulty.”

The key, however, is focusing on the mission, Vera found. “We were using Ukrainian helicopters and crews to airlift supplies in the countryside when I was in Haiti before,” he said. “Sure, we could barely understand each other – but within a week we all knew how to communicate to do what we needed to do. We were there to help the Haitians, so we figured out as way to get it done.”

The LETs initiative involves providing “loaned” logistics experts to oversee on-site disaster response, normally for a deployment of three-to-six months, comprised of individuals from UPS, TNT Logistics, DHL, Agility Logistics, and others – all picked for their a wide range of expertise covering air and ground transportation, warehousing, etc.

[The clip below details TNT's LET involement with relief efforts in Darfur, Sudan about three years ago now. It shows how difficult conducting such relief efforts are from a logistics perspective.]

Vera said LET training takes about a week – roughly 40 hours – covering everything from security needs, what non-governmental organizations (NGOs) teams work with on the ground, and other details.

LETs are all-volunteer and require a commitment of two years service. One pleasant surprise, he noted, is that while such teams are made up of people from erstwhile competitors in the business world, once they join an LET, all of that gets left behind. “The camaraderie is extraordinary, since in many cases we’re from different cultures with very different senses of humor,” he explained. “But when the goal is helping people in a crisis, all those differences go over the aide.”

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Vera (seen here on the left in this photo) related that he draws on his wide-ranging experience at UPS to help find solutions to whatever logistical challenges present themselves. From shipping hazardous materials, working in a cargo warehouse, plus loading and unloading planes, to designing health and safety procedures for all manner of jobs at UPS, Vera’s done a little of everything – but he quickly told me nothing ever goers by the book in situations like Haiti’s.

“We’ve got a very structured way of doing things at UPS – specific methods for performing jobs a certain way,” Vera said. “But when you get on the ground after a natural disaster, a lot of that goes by the wayside. You must to step back, look at the resources you have, and go from there. The biggest benefit from my UPS experience is record retention – always keeping clear documentation of what’s going where and how it’s getting there.”

[Indeed, companies like UPS aren’t just providing logistical expertise – they’re donating money for Haiti’s relief as well. UPS itself has donated more than $1 million in cash and in-kind support to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti through its charitable arm, The UPS Foundation, divided between The American Red Cross, CARE, UNICEF and other organizations that assist with long-term relief activities.]

Still, the waiting is hard – almost the hardest part of a disaster-relief operation of this magnitude, knowing so many lives are at stake but that none might be helped if all you do is make the logistical logjam worse. “Crisis response in Haiti is extraordinarily difficult because the country has little modern infrastructure,” Vera stressed to me. “We got to get all that straightened out before we can go in.”

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