Reading the news reports and seeing the images of the destruction in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian, I am reminded of our work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands following Hurricane Maria. When an island community faces such catastrophic damage, efforts to help and rebuild are difficult and slow. The first impulse is to send immediate aid in the form of food, water and other lifesaving commodities. In the initial days that is essential, but what we have learned in Puerto Rico is that when the damage is on a catastrophic scale — as is now the case in the Bahamas — no government can meet the needs of an entire island’s population. The private sector is key to recovery.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the devastation in Puerto Rico was shocking and pleas for help were ubiquitous in news coverage. As a result, the U.S. government launched the largest food mission in U.S. history. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was able to provide more than 30 million meals to the Puerto Rican government during the first 6 months to an island of 3.4 million people. Despite the massive mission, the relief effort amounted to only nine meals per person over six months.
Yet at the same time, the island’s grocers were open within days of landfall and even reported the largest volume of food sales since 2009. In fact, within four weeks of landfall, over 90 percent of residents were fulfilling fundamental needs through the capacity of preexisting private sector supply chains or ad-hoc replacements. Not realizing that, FEMA continued to focus on delivering food and water, inadvertently blocking the efforts of the private sector to recover quickly by taking up limited trucking resources, vessel capacity and dock space at the ports needed for distribution. [See https://www.cna.org/research/hurricane-supply-chain]
Based on our assessment of the U.S. government’s experience in Puerto Rico, the Bahamian government should focus as soon as possible on helping private sector supply chains recover. By focusing effort on reestablishing power and communications, providing access to fuel and clearing roads, the government can support the essential infrastructure for the private sector supply chains to flow. This will speed up the island’s recovery.
Restoring power and communications will allow stores to open and process sales. In the interim, the government can assist the private sector by providing novel solutions like setting up temporary mobile electronic data transfer connections to help process bankcards to enable payment for goods. Early in Puerto Rico’s recovery, lack of such electronic access was often the only thing standing between food and hungry people.
Delivery trucks will distribute goods where they are needed as long as they have fuel and clear roads. The Bahamian government should make those tasks a priority. The government can further facilitate the distribution of goods by ensuring that the island’s distribution centers have access to their trucks and drivers and that their goods make it into the ports. Government and charitable relief efforts, while understandably large, should not be allowed to consume all of the available distribution resources such as port space or permitted truck drivers.
This level of coordination between the government and private sector requires trust and open discussions about resources. This will allow the two parties to work together to quickly identify bottlenecks in the supply chain and solve them. Ultimately, it is the private sector supply chain that will meet the needs of the population.