September 07, 2005

On Logistics 

Logistics is, generally, all the things involved with moving items from a point A to a point B - where A and B are not in close proximity*. It is something even common individuals have to face quite often: how to bring home all the stuff I bought at the supermarket? How to move my belongings from my old flat to a new one? Where to get all the boxes and bags, what pack and move first and last etc.

Industries have to deal with logistics on a bigger and more complex scale: how to keep a constant flow of raw materials and consumables coming to my factory, so that I will have a stock for emergency situations, but not too big? How to deliver my finished products on time? An Italian company built a tomato processing plant in Italy, then shipped the whole thing, disassembled, to China - and not China in general, but the specific town and place - to be assembled and commissioned by a mixed force of Italian and local technicians.

To do that, you have to consider the carachteristics of your items, then choose the most appropriate shipping means; make an agreement with a transport company that will fetch your container and bring (by truck and/or train) it to a seaport where it will be loaded onto a ship; then unloaded in China and by some means shipped to the proper place - and possibly in time. All this takes time and money and manpower; while there are companies specialized in logistics, the owner of the goods cannot really ignore how the system works.
You have to coordinate men and machines so that the items will be delivered quickly without sitting idle for days, because it's a loss of money and those items can get damaged or stolen.

Where logistics is most important is in war. Armies are big systems that require a lot of supplies to continue working (fight and defeat the enemy): ammunition obviously, but also fuel, food, water, batteries, underwear, soap, shaving razors, boots, spare parts, toilet paper, tools, medical supplies and a lot of other things. A sizable army in combat operations consumes staggering amounts of supplies per day; tens of thousands small-arms rounds; thousands of artillery and mortar rounds; hundreds of bombs and rockets and hand-grenades. Plus tens of cubic meters of fuel and water.

And all this is required: if supplies are scarce, the effectivness of your army will be scarce. And if the logistic train stops, soon the whole system will grind to a halt. 10 000 infantrymen, 1000 jeeps and 500 tanks without fuel and ammo will be nearly useless.

One of the reasons the Allies won WWII is because they had superior logistics and could always bring to battlefield plenty of all that was needed. Even Patton himsslf in one of his speeches thanked profusely the truck drivers who continued to spool back and forth under an artillery barrage in Africa to keep the fighting troops supplied.

Good logistics is hard to organize: you have to estimate how much stuff you will need, and then provide for some extra. Then find out how many vehicles and crews you will need, considering that vehicles will need servicing and crews will need rest. Then you have to provide the fuel, and vehicles to carry the fuel itself. Estabilish transport routes (which may need to be guarded), assembly points where to load and unload the goods, and an inventory system that will assure the proper flow of supplies to each unit according to their role. Supplying the wrong items is a serious mistake, because having something useless is almost as bad as having nothing, and it will be a waste of resources. After being surrounded by the Red Army in the bitter winter of Stalingrad, the Germans tried an airlift to keep the troops in the pocket supplied, but some of those precious missions were wasted delivering useless goods.

The logistics required for disaster relief is very similar to the military one. Survivors (and rescuers themselves) do not need ammo and weapons (generally), but they need water, food, shelter, latrines, showers (possibly) and other things. Fuel is required for electricity generators and vehicles, and all this on a scale of several thousand people on a vast (relatively, it varies case by case) area where infrastructures are often already damaged and rendered nearly unusable by the same disaster that caused the emergency. Another cirmustances that must be taken into account is that if crowds are not properly disciplined, handing out or airdropping food and drinks can easily turn into riots. It is a big problem, not easy to solve and impossible to solve to the perfect satisfaction of everyone involved.

And flooded areas are, I think the worst of the worse: even if water is realitvely shallow, only off-road vehicles can wade through it; the ground will be reduced to slippery but sticky mud and dark waters will conceal debris and ostacles. If water is deeper, only boats (or the rare amphibious vehicles) can go in but their crews must be even more careful of obstacles and debris. But water will never be deep enough to let seagoing rescue vessels in.

Hurricane Katrina conserved a full Cat 3 hurricane force up to 160 km (100 mi.) inland, and considering its sheer size it is not difficult to believe it devastated an area of the size of Great Britain and displaced hundred of thousands people. It is a serious logistical problem to bring relief in, a very big one

I'm not saying that the Federal government did everything properly to the last comma, but my point is that no one man, not even George W. Bush can just snap his fingers and instantly make relief appear out of nowhere.

* In automated production processes even moving objects of a few centimeters can pose a relevant problem, but it is not called logistics.


Logistics is key to emergency response and the best case would be to limit those that need emergency aid. That means evacuating everyone that wants to be evacuated. N.O. should have and could have done this. They did not. A simple evacuation plan should have been implemented to evacuate those without personal vehicles by utilizing the thousand plus busses the city possessed. Those busses remained unused and many were destroyed sitting in their depots after the levee broke.

I was dealing more with the logistics of aid coming from the outside, but it is true that Nagin and Blanco demonstrated abysmal leadership and scarce competence. For a minimum of justice, they should be destituted from their offices (if this is legally possible of course) right now.

They will probably be reelected. The only way I can see that aid could get in quickly would be by ship, but harbor facilities were surly damaged. Amphibious landing craft to shuttle in relief supplies on shore? Hopefully all this will be looked at and plans drawn up but N.O. had plans that were ignored so who knows.
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