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Researcher Seeks Better Routes for Relief Supplies to Disaster Sites Like Haiti

The earthquake that leveled much of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince is drawing attention to the difficulty of providing relief services in a place where roads, ports, and airports are all but destroyed.

Ann Campbell, a professor of management sciences in The University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, is an expert on transportation logistics. One of her research focuses is finding more efficient methods for governments, agencies, and businesses to transport relief supplies to disaster areas.

Campbell is using the tools of her trade to find a better idea. Her specialty--vehicle routing---uses mathematical modeling and high-powered computing to develop quicker, more efficient ways to move something from one place to another.

Most of her research is aimed at helping businesses build supply chains that reduce transportation costs and increase profits. But few transportation logistics problems are as challenging as disaster logistics, which deals in many more unknown factors and turns the objective of supply chain management--maximizing profit--on its head.

"Commercial supply chains are focused on quality and profitability," Campbell said. "Humanitarian supply chains are focused on minimizing loss of life and suffering, and distribution is focused on equity and fairness much more than in commercial applications."

Campbell started studying disaster logistics after the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in 2004 wiped out a portion of Aceh Island and killed hundreds of thousands of people. For weeks, governments and international agencies struggled to bring relief supplies to a remote corner of a remote island where the disaster had taken out most transportation infrastructure.

The question took on added urgency when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005.

"The software used to route deliveries is focused on maximizing profits and minimizing costs, but that didn't seem the most appropriate software to use when it came to getting people food and water," she said.

She said the Haiti earthquake has its own set of issues.

"The lack of supplies in Haiti combined with its inaccessibility make a recipe for a very difficult situation that is very different from the planning done in the U.S. for hurricanes and other disasters," she said.

One element of disaster logistics that Campbell and others are studying is where to locate pre-positioned supply depots in advance of a storm.

"If you put them too close to the Gulf they might be destroyed by the storm, so you have to put them someplace that's far enough away to be safe but no so far that it takes too long to get the supplies to the people who need them," she said.


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