Several weeks after Hurricane Maria wrecked devastation on Puerto Rico, destroying the power grid and leaving millions without access to necessities, distributing aid remains an issue. Extreme events pose serious logistical challenges to emergency and aid organizations active in preparation, response, and recovery operations, as the disturbances they bring about turn normal conditions into chaos. Last month, José Holguín-Veras, the William H. Hart Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer, hosted a press conference and webinar titled “Lessons from Large Disasters and Catastrophes for Post-Disaster Response: Implications for Puerto Rico.”

José Holguín-Veras

“In the case of catastrophic events, delivering the critical supplies required becomes an extremely difficult task because of the severe damages to the physical and virtual infrastructures and the very limited, or non-existent, transportation capacity,” said Holguín-Veras. “In the aftermath of catastrophic events like Hurricane Maria, the relief problems in Puerto Rico are the result of the predictable effects of a catastrophic event that hampered the local capacity to respond to the event and destroyed communication networks.”

Holguín-Veras noted that the amount of manpower needed to do local distribution is tremendous. “On average, local distribution requires 50 to 100 times the manpower required for the long-haul transport of the supplies.”

At Rensselaer, Holguín-Veras and his team have worked to develop a series of models to indicate the basic needs of half the population in Puerto Rico. For example, according to one model, if residents need 5 kilograms of food and water per day, disaster responders would need to establish 355 Points of Distribution (PODs) that are manned by about 20,000 workers. In addition, transporting the 8,500 metric tons of food and water every day would require a fleet of about 1,440 midsize trucks.

In another model, Holguín-Veras noted that if residents needed 20 kilograms of food, water, and other supplies, the 355 Points of Distribution (PODs) would still require 20,000 workers; however, transporting the 34,000 metric tons of food and water every day would require a fleet of about 5,500 midsize trucks.

“The recovery process is made more difficult by the prevailing lack of knowledge about the nature and challenges of post-disaster humanitarian logistics,” Holguín-Veras said. “In the case of Puerto Rico, organizing the local distribution effort is a humongous undertaking that requires assembling and organizing a workforce larger than the size of the average U.S. Army division, without communications and severely impacted infrastructure. A concerted effort involving the federal government, local officials, and communities is needed to eliminate the crisis.”

The October 5 presentation discussed the important lessons that ought to be learned from these disasters, and the implications for the response to Puerto Rico. The presentation is based on the quick response fieldwork conducted by Holguín-Veras and his colleagues on the largest disasters of recent times, which include, among many others, the 2011 Tohoku disasters in Japan, the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

Holguín-Veras’ work, funded by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies, aims to identify what could be improved in preparation for future disasters. He is an adviser to many international governments on these matters.

To view the webinar recording titled “Lessons from Large Disasters and Catastrophes for Post-Disaster Response: Implications for Puerto Rico,” visit:

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