Information Flow Impediments in Disaster Relief Supply Chains*

Article excerpt


Supply Chain Management (SCM) is seldom more difficult than during disaster relief efforts. As supply chains quickly form in response to a disaster, a slow information flow presents a major hindrance to coordinating the allocation of resources necessary for disaster relief efforts. This paper identifies impediments to the flow of information through supply chains following large scale and catastrophic disasters. Given the scarce body of literature on this subject, a grounded theory case study was conducted to examine an extreme case. The study concentrates on the efforts of multiple organizations and individuals that provided relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which battered the Gulf Coast of the southeastern United States in late 2005. Data was gathered from diverse sources, including government agencies, profit and non-profit organizations, and individuals, during and after the disaster. Based on our data analysis, we not only identify information flow impediments (i.e., inaccessibility, inconsistent data and information formats, inadequate stream of information, low information priority, source identification difficulty, storage media misalignment, unreliability, and unwillingness), but also identify likely sources of these impediments, and examine their consequences to organizations' disaster recovery efforts. Our findings suggest some potential design principles for devising solutions capable of reducing or alleviating the impact of information flow impediments in future disasters.

1. Introduction

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall near New Orleans on August 29, 2005, it brought winds of 140 mph and near-record storm surges. Communities along the Gulf Coast of the USA from southeast Louisiana to Alabama were devastated, but more damage was to come. On August 31, Katrina's strong storm surges, winds, and continued rainfall in New Orleans began to break the city's levees. Much of New Orleans quickly became uninhabitable, as 80 percent of the city and portions of neighboring parishes flooded. Flooding in most areas did not recede for weeks. In the end, nearly 1,700 people died, and unparalleled masses of people evacuated to neighboring cities and states (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006). Houston, Texas, took in an estimated 250,000 evacuees and managed what is considered to be the largest shelter operation in U.S. history. In just one location alone-the Reliant Complex, which includes the old Astrodome-Houston city services and volunteers provided food, housing, and medical care to a total of 24,300 evacuees during the height of sheltering operations. Over several weeks, roughly 60,000 volunteers helped distribute over USD 7 million in donated goods and services (Harris County Joint Information Center, 2006). The remaining 225,000 evacuees in Houston were scattered throughout the city in other Red Cross shelters, hotels, informal shelters, and private households of family, friends, or kind strangers who opened their homes

Despite attempts by organizations and various levels of government to organize Katrina response and recovery efforts effectively, documented results show that the efforts to provide help where needed were often inefficient. Poorly coordinated supply chain efforts, for example, led to USD 900 million in manufactured homes and 110 million pounds of ice (60 percent of what was ordered) going unused by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) while many suffered in desperate need of housing and relief from the heat (U.S. House of Representatives, 2006).

The formation of supply chains following large-scale catastrophic disasters such as Hurricane Katrina is a complex undertaking. Disaster-driven supply chains form an incident organization, a "temporary configuration of otherwise disparate resources" (Smith and Dowell, 2000, p. 1154). Within these impromptu structures that attempt to save lives and restore communities, the need for successful supply chain management is unparalleled. …