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You can’t drive to an island, but you can fly from it.

By Steve Geary | 10/09/2017 | 5:16 AM

 

In a recent article on the devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria, the Washington Post compared Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico with the devastation of Irma in Texas.  Quoting Garrett Ingoglia of Americares, a US-based relief organization, the Washington Post wrote, “When Florida was hit by Irma, workers from Americares were able to drive in to deliver supplies and aid. But you know, you can't do that with islands."

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are over 1,000 miles away from the closest major US seaport, Miami.  That’s comparable to the distance between Chicago, a major distribution hub, and Houston.  The big difference is that you can drive a truck to Chicago from Houston in less than a day, but getting to Puerto Rico from Miami requires loading and sailing a cargo ship.  Cargo ships at full speed typically move at about 25 miles per hour, a lot slower than the 65 mph cruise down the interstate.

This logistics challenge is what some naval friends of mine call the tyranny of distance.

Over three million people live in Puerto Rico, and let’s not forget about the US Virgin Islands, with another 100,000 or so.  The population of Puerto Rico – they are US citizens - ranks in the middle of the pack of US States, with over three million inhabitants.  That makes it comparable to Connecticut.  Not just comparable to Hartford, or New Haven, or Fairfield Country, but comparable to the population of the entire State of Connecticut. 

I’m not sure how to put a disaster of this magnitude in perspective, except by quoting Joe Biden.  This is a “big f**king deal.”

Once the ships arrive in Puerto Rico, there is only one good sized port.  The Port of San Juan is well equipped, and quickly recovered after the storm, but it may be overmatched by the challenge ahead.  In terms of port capacity if ranks just below the ports of Portland, Maine or Albany, New York, and just ahead of that well known seaport of Toledo, Ohio.

It’s fair to say that Puerto Rico has a port capacity issue.

The electrical infrastructure has fallen over across all of Puerto Rico.  According to NPR, it will take months to get the antiquated electrical grid back on-line.  The absence of an electrical grid has a ripple effect.  Without electricity, water pumps are won’t run.  And without pumps, municipal water systems run dry.  People now travel miles to find fresh spring water.

Ben Franklin understood the issue, saying, “When the well's dry, we know the worth of water.” 

In the near term, logisticians have a massive humanitarian relief challenge compounded by distance, the isolation created by the Caribbean Sea, devastation, destroyed infrastructure, and the isolation created by the sea.  But what happens after that?  It will be years before Puerto Rico and to a lesser degree the Virgin Islands get back on their feet.  What happens then?

Almost a century ago, in the 1930s, we had the “Dust Bowl,” devastating over a quarter of a million acres centered in western and central Oklahoma.  That land area is comparable to Puerto Rico.  By some estimates, the Dust Bowl event displaced over 3,000,000 people.  Already charter airlines are leaving San Juan full, every day. The exodus has begun.

We may see another logistics problem on our hands:  mass migration.  The talking heads on television are drawing comparisons to Houston.  Maybe we should be thinking about Haiti, the South Sudan, and Ethiopia.  Except that with Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are the United States of America, so there can be no wall.

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About Steve Geary

Steve Geary

Steve Geary is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Tennessee's College of Business Administration, and is on the faculty at The Gordon Institute at Tufts University, where he teaches supply chain management. He is the President of the Supply Chain Visions family of companies, and Chief Operating Officer at ROSE Solutions, consultancies that work across the government sector. Steve is a contributing editor at DC Velocity, and editor-at-large for CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. He is listed in Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and Who's Who in Executives and Professionals. In November of 2007, Steve was recognized for "Selfless Service to Our Nation and the People of Iraq" by the Deputy Secretary of Defense.



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