Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Logistics of disaster

As Joplin is only a two hour drive south of Kansas City, the local media have been filled with solicitations for donations of food, water, and other basic necessities to be sent to the devastated town. As a Joplin native, they certainly hit home for me.

Yet when these calls for things to be gathered inevitably follow a natural disaster of this magnitude, I can't help but think of the enormous deadweight loss that results as a consequence of the donation process.

First, the typical scenario: Sydney comes home from school telling mom and dad that the elementary will be collecting relief items in the cafeteria to be sent to Joplin over the weekend. The family buys a couple cases of water and some pillows to contribute. Sydney, who normally rides the bus, is taken the following day by her mom so she is able to bring the stuff to school. The janitorial staff clears out space in the cafeteria for all the items that are gathered along with local volunteers who help coordinate the drive and load and unload the stuff, and a few parents with F150s offer to either drive the stuff directly to Joplin (depending on proximity), or to a location in their city to be loaded on semi-trucks that will freight them overland to the Red Cross on-site makeshift disaster relief distribution center.

Now, an alternative scenario: Sydney comes home from school telling mom and dad that the elementary will be collecting WalMart and CVS gift cards to send to the people of Joplin tomorrow via airmail (or, even less expensively and more quickly, via e-cards). The family goes to the front of said retailer or to their home computer in the den to purchase the gift cards. The school secretary collects them the following morning and sends them off with the USPS that afternoon to the same Red Cross center in Joplin.

The typical scenario is slower (the stuff has to be gathered first at homes then at the school and then at some central location in the sending city before finally hauled off to the ravaged city), more costly (WalMart trucks are moving the stuff to Kansas City for it to be moved by others to Joplin, instead of just moving it to Joplin in the first place) far more time-intensive for the givers (the family has to do the actual shopping for things they assume the ultimate recipients need, and then get that stuff to the school) and provides less utility for the victims (who may get four cases of water but no toothpaste, etc) than the alternative scenario. In short, WalMart's logistical operation is far more efficient than a haphazard group of well-intentioned students, parents, and teachers are.

Yes, the WalMart on Rangeline road was completely destroyed, but a town of 50,000 supports more than one Supercenter, the other being on 7th street on the north side of town, which was spared by the EF-5. And if a catastrophe wipes out a town's entire retail establishment, the situation becomes one of evacuation, not of recovery and rebuilding--one where former residents are immediately being moved to nearby towns (that have WalMarts) anyway.

People involved in charitable operations will tell you, to varying degrees, that giving is as much about the giver as it is about the recipient (and if you're a parent who has footed Santa Claus' bill before, you are already aware of this). Humans aren't entirely rational creatures, and there is certainly some truth to the objection that the typical scenario makes the givers feel like they're volunteering more than the alternative scenario does. And, in terms of the personal sacrifices made, it's true. But the benefits from the extra cost and effort accrue entirely to the givers, not to the victims.

There is also the practical question of how to persuade people to favor the alternative scenario. It's not politically feasible for WalMart to encourage people to buy their gift cards and send them to Joplin, as they'll be accused of trying to profit from the devastation. Of course, the givers are buying the same items at their local WalMarts as the victims would be buying from the WalMart on 7th street, so in reality it's a wash, but that's not how it will be interpreted. Parenethetically, WalMart and Home Depot have each pledged over $1 million in donations for relief efforts, but publicizing as much is perceived as being in poor taste.

In fact, from WalMart's perspective, there is no incentive (nor disincentive) for the giftcard method. It's organizations like the Red Cross (in addition to those who donate, although their generosity is reflexive--they are not involved in relief efforts frequently to really think about the process in a systematic way) that have the greatest incentive to receive money and money substitutes instead of the physical items that money would buy. Indeed, that is what such organizations tend to emphasize, though perhaps not as vociferously as they should.


jdc8b said...

quite brilliant; perspective-altering

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

That's a sound idea, AE. I'd like to see it tried out.

Incidentally--and a bit off topic--has there been much looting in Joplin? I haven't heard of any, but perhaps I haven't been paying close enough attention.

Audacious Epigone said...


Not that I am aware of. I don't have any family that lives in the city any longer though, so I can't be certain about that. Shouldn't be surprising that there have not been reports of any though, given Joplin's demography.

sykes.1 said...

FEMA has told state and local agencies that it will not be able to provide any assistance in less than 72 hours, 3 full days. Even then, FEMA does not have the logistical capability of moving large amounts of stuff quickly.

Your scheme is excellent. And it looks like it can cut the response time down sharply. People go where the stuff is in their own transportation almost immediately. And the sum total of their own transportation has a logistical capacity that fars exceeds even the military.

This idea should really be pushed hard. I am going to contact my Congressman. Everyone should jump on this.

Dahlia said...

Here in the Tampa Florida media market, they were pretty good at getting the word out about wasteful giving during Katrina. They went behind the scenes of one of the charities, Red Cross I think, to show how it deals with collecting the basic necessities. It was a variation of what what you're talking about, but aimed at those who wanted to drive to the charity and drop off a couple grocery bags. They just don't have the time to sort through them when they have large volumes on pallets donated by the big box stores to deal with.

There has to be a balance between cutting waste and providing satisfaction to the giver. If you make it too unsatisfying, and the more impersonal and invisible the process is the more likely that will be the case, you will disinhibit giving.

I'm not up on what charities' websites do now, but I would think the more interactive and in real time, the better (true at real-life donation sites, too). For example, the better political candidates and groups immediately update their sites with one's donation with whatever name one gives them. One immediately sees they've made an impact and the progress made, and still needed.

Also, the most important thing of all: try to provide as much control to the giver as is feasible. It was a huge blow to charity giving when it was learned that the Red Cross had passed out debit cards and some ended up being used at strip clubs and what-not during Katrina.

read it said...

"much looting in Joplin?"

Hey if you ever wanted to strip copper wire, now is the time.

Seriously, the place is so torn up, probably every safe building is occupied and the busted ones are probably too difficult to navigate.

Anonymous said...

The mother of my wife's friend L. lived there. She rented an apt. without insurance, and LOST EVERYTHING. Her FB photos of her apt. bldg. show splinters, trash, nothing recognizable. I said to the wife, we can send her a check directly, if asked. An adult is damned irresponsible to have no renter's insurance while living in the tornado belt!

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

Even if you're living in Tornado Alley as I do, the odds of being hit by a tornado are infinitesimally small. And if you're a renter, you probably don't have a lot of spare lucre to spend on non-required insurance.

BillyBob said...

As for looting, there have been some minor incidents, but having seen the destruction first hand, it doesn't look like homes and businesses destroyed by a tornado, but more like a land fill full of construction debris. Considering the extent of damage in Joplin, looting would probably be more productive by looting a land fill.

As for not having money for insurance, renters insurance is less than 40c per day to cover most people's contents.

Audacious Epigone said...


Very encouraging to hear!


It's anecdotal, but the trend does seem to be of "live updates" for giving. I just made a donation online for a team member of a work-related charity and on the right side of the page was a scrolling list of who had contributed and how much they'd given. It's a soft shaming tactic, which in this particular case I found irritating because it's not the type of charity I'd give to of my own volition, but for this same reason it is effective.


Well, with insurance, the odds are with the house. But insurance shouldn't be looked at as an investment--it's insurance!


Were there any retail establishments that were only partially damaged? It's my impression that it was all-or-nothing--either tornado demolished the building and everything inside of it, or bypassed it entirely.

Ed Tom Kowalsky said...

From some desultory Binging it seems that there has been a bit of looting in Joplin (NPR made quite a bit of hay from very little seed), but not very much. There was also looting in Tuscaloosa (a very demographically different place from Joplin) after its tornado, but the levels are difficult to determine. Based on the scarcity of info available, I must assume that looting was not a huge problem in either place. It would be interesting to see the demographics of those arrested for looting and to know how many people came from other places specifically to loot.

Campion said...

This is a good idea. The only counter-argumant I can think of is that there may be people with extra stuff they don't need but not much spare money to donate.