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Freight All Kinds – Humanitarian Aid


Hurricane Dorian passed through the Bahamas with category 5 winds of 185 miles per hour carrying out calamitous devastation to the northwestern section of the archipelago. With 53 reported dead and some 1,300 individuals unaccounted for, this was the strongest hurricane and greatest natural disaster the Bahamas have experienced, leaving an estimated $7 billion of damage in its wake.

As the powerful storm slowly crossed the islands at a clip of approximately one mile per hour, taking two days to pass, the mission to get supplies to the more than 70,000 people most directly impacted on the northwest islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama was already in the works.

It is customary to see photos and videos of supplies being loaded on 53-foot trailers to assist with relief efforts following catastrophic events. But when there are no roads to the destination, air and ocean are left as the primary means of moving supplies to those in need.

Wave of air support

Major passenger and cargo airlines have been active in the relief effort, with some sending in supplies before the storm even reached the Bahamas. Since, many have been sending palletized supplies via cargo and passenger planes to warehouse facilities at airports in the commonwealth's capital, Nassau, Freeport on Grand Bahama Island and Marsh Harbour on the Abaco Islands, as well as providing back-and-forth air travel for humanitarian groups and aid workers.

Delta Air Lines Inc. (NYSE: DAL) has sent multiple relief cargo flights to the Bahamas delivering supplies like water, nonperishable food, baby supplies, clothing, generators, cots and household products. The airline has provided more than 85,000 pounds of relief supplies over multiple flights from Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta to airports in Nassau, Freeport and Marsh Harbour. After landing and delivering the supplies, the planes then departed to Nassau transporting evacuees to rescue centers. Delta has evacuated more than 500 survivors since the relief flights began.

Delta employees pose with flag during Bahamas relief flight – Image: Delta

Prior to operating these flights, Delta assembled a reconnaissance mission consisting of teams from its flight safety, emergency response, corporate security, cargo and airport customer service teams to assess the feasibility of flying "a mainline aircraft into two airports closed as a result of severe infrastructure damage — airports usually served by Delta's smaller regional fleet," said Drake Castañeda, with Delta's corporate communications.

Once the company deemed it was safe to make the relief flights, Delta secured landing rights in the Bahamas. Upon arrival with supplies, the U.S. Marine Corps, Bahamian police and British marines provided assistance unloading the freight and boarding survivors for departure to Nassau.

Delta employees preparing to board Bahamas evacuees – Image: Delta

Initially, the airline used an MD-88 to begin delivering supplies and transporting evacuees. Soon after the operations began, Delta dedicated a 76-seat CRJ-900 regional aircraft for the service through its wholly owned subsidiary, Endeavor Air. Delta chose the CRJ-900 aircraft "due to its operational flexibility," given the condition of the runways at the affected airports and the aircraft's onboard stairs, said Castañeda. The freight was palletized in large cargo containers for staging around the cargo facilities in the U.S., but broken down into smaller containers ("loose supplies") for transport on the narrowbody aircraft to final destinations in the Bahamas.

Currently, Delta is still running relief supplies in the belly space of its regular service commercial passenger flights from Atlanta to Nassau.

Latin America answers the call

Air cargo support came from airlines other than the large U.S. domestic carriers.

The largest airline in Latin America, LATAM Airlines Group S.A. (NYSE: LTM), answered the call when its neighbors to the north needed help. LATAM provided 35 tons of humanitarian aid in the form of medicines, medical instruments, sanitary and edible items that it had collected as loose cargo in its Miami warehouse. Once palletized for cargo delivery, the freight was loaded onto a B767-300BCF cargo plane. The flight, dubbed Humanitarian Relief Plane, and its full payload were chartered and operated by LATAM Cargo from Miami to Nassau.

Relief supplies on the tarmac in Miami before loading – Image: LATAM Airlines Group

This was a route outside of the Santiago, Chile-based airline's normal network. The group of passenger and cargo airlines is accustomed to cargo moves throughout Latin America, but typically they are shipments of fruit from Chile, asparagus from Peru or fresh-cut flowers from Ecuador and Colombia. On this day, the company hauled the much-needed supplies and aid that had been collected in collaboration with the UPS Foundation (NYSE: UPS). Upon arrival, the goods were distributed to hospitals and foundations on different islands.

LATAM employees loading 25 cargo pallets filled with supplies – Image: LATAM Airlines Group

This wasn't the first flight for the Humanitarian Relief Plane. The initiative provides air cargo capacity to deliver goods for use in relief efforts. In the past, similar trips have been made after other catastrophic events like the forest fires in Chile, the floods in Peru, hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the earthquake in Ecuador.

Supply chain bottleneck

Resources arrived to the islands quickly and in great abundance — so much so that the normally robust supply chain in Nassau became overwhelmed. Warehousing space was in short supply and the cargo facilities in and around the port and airport in Nassau struggled to quickly process the freight arriving on pallets and in containers. The sheer amount of freight caused delays in getting the most-needed items to the areas most in need.

"many private pilots were turning off their transponders and changing arrival destinations mid-flight to circumvent the airspace restrictions and deliver supplies"

Anthony Lecossois, strategic operations manager with Mercy Corps

The private sector provided the bulk of the initial response, quickly delivering aid throughout the islands via private boat or yacht and by private plane.

Anthony Lecossois, strategic operations manager with Mercy Corps, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that oversees humanitarian initiatives across the globe, said that the airspace over the Bahamas was overcrowded when relief efforts first began. Even with temporary flight restrictions in place, air traffic was heavy as large cargo relief planes competed with smaller private fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to deliver supplies and rescue people.

Lecossois, who is spearheading Mercy Corps' relief operations in the Bahamas, said that "many private pilots were turning off their transponders and changing arrival destinations mid-flight to circumvent the airspace restrictions and deliver supplies" to the impacted areas.

"The planes that were arriving initially were mostly five to eight seaters, which don't have much cargo room," said Lecossois. The scene was very chaotic at first, "with private boats moving from cay to cay and planes continuing to make unscheduled landings," he continued, noting that the environment is more methodical now that a makeshift supply chain has been established and commercial carry (air and ocean) has resumed.

The new supply chain on Grand Bahama Island

Freeport on Grand Bahama Island is a key transportation hub for the Bahamas. The airport has a runway capable of handling the world's largest aircraft, accommodating domestic and international passenger travel as well as cargo shipments. The Freeport Container Terminal is a major transshipment hub with capacity to handle 1.5 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) annually. The port supports primary east-west linehaul routes through the region serving the U.S. East Coast, Central America, South America and the Carribean. Hutchison Ports (U.S. OTC: HCTPF) operates the airport and container terminals through joint ventures.

However, the most important supply chain isn't as encompassing currently. It's the domestic inland supply route that is most essential for the 96-mile-wide, 17-mile-long island.

The Bahamian arm of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is overseeing the receipt and distribution of aid, but many NGOs have their own supply chains established as well. The supplies are sorted at a warehouse facility or staging area, sometimes a tent, and then gathered for delivery throughout the local communities. NEMA has established several warehouses on Grand Bahama Island to receive shipments of donated goods and plans to establish at least two more. The organization is still seeking resources to bolster its "logistics, warehouse management and distribution network."

Lecossois (blue shirt) discusses distribution for hundreds of bottles of water in Freeport – Image: Christy Delafield/Mercy Corps

This is where it gets a bit tougher. Initially, the runways at the airports of Freeport and Marsh Harbour weren't in passable condition and freight was being ferried to survivors and their communities. Further, roads were washed out in some areas and there weren't many working heavy transport vehicles available to move the loads as they were flooded out in the storm. However, some of this was remedied within a couple of days of the hurricane's passing as crews were able to clear the airfields that had become debris fields.

Truck capacity in demand

Simon Lewis, press liaison for NEMA in Grand Bahama, said that the condition of the roadways has improved dramatically and that every point of Grand Bahama Island is accessible by vehicle. The island's sanitation services organization was still removing debris from roads in the eastern part of the island as late as Sept. 19.

"We [NEMA and the NGOs] travel daily from east to west on the island delivering supplies," said Lewis. The boxes of basic supplies being delivered door to door include food, water and hygiene products. "We have daily food service for everyone that is here." 

"We have daily food service for everyone that is here." 

Simon Lewis, press liaison for NEMA in Grand Bahama

Expedience in the post-storm established supply chain is mission critical for the recovery efforts. "It is imperative that we do our absolute best to process the supplies and aid in a very efficient manner. Supplies, such as food and water, in a warehouse do us no good unless we can quickly get them inspected, sorted and packaged for delivery or pickup," said Kay Forbes-Smith, NEMA coordinator for Grand Bahama.

Residents unload supplies in Abaco – Image: American Red Cross

However, Lewis said that they could use more trucks or delivery vehicles as many were badly damaged in the storm. "Grand Bahama Power Company had trucks brought over before the hurricane, but most of those were damaged too." 

The utility staged service trucks and teams at its generation and distribution headquarters with the plan of immediately starting restoration efforts once the storm passed and NEMA provided the all clear. But the damage from the hurricane delayed those efforts, at least initially. The company is now working to restore electricity to the regions deemed "flood areas."

"It's quite telling a country like the Bahamas with really good infrastructure before the storm saw its supply chain so disrupted. Now they're working with less than optimal conditions and equipment, but finding different solutions and different ways of overcoming it and making it work."

Anthony Lecossois, strategic operations manager with Mercy Corps

Mercy Corps' Lecossois highlighted the need for trucks as well. The organization is working with the Grand Bahama Port Authority, which provides ground handling and warehousing of its supplies. After that, the group is on its own to procure truck capacity.

Supply truck in Abaco – Image: American Red Cross

"Trucks — and fuel — are very difficult to find. Each day we hustle to get trucks and forklifts," said Lecossois. He said that early on the only truck capacity that they could find was a 40-foot flatbed straight truck, which wasn't as nimble as desired for navigating the damaged roads and was roughly twice the size needed for the loads they were moving. He said that finding a truck is still the choke point in the supply chain as rebuilding and construction efforts have begun, further limiting capacity.

"Flatbed trucks, pickup trucks and personal cars" are still the primary mode for distributing supplies, according to the American Red Cross director of international communications Jenelle Eli, who is currently stationed in the Bahamas. The group's efforts are being coordinated out of its logistics hub in Panama, where it flies aid to its warehouse in Nassau via cargo plane. The Red Cross is currently looking for "more permanent solutions for warehouse space" in Nassau in addition to the warehouse space it has been loaned by a private entity. The organization would like to see more truck capacity to help its logistics specialists on the ground who are working out of base camps on both Grand Bahama and Abaco.

Commenting on the new supply chain, Lecossois said, "It's quite telling a country like the Bahamas with really good infrastructure before the storm saw its supply chain so disrupted. Now they're working with less than optimal conditions and equipment, but finding different solutions and different ways of overcoming it and making it work."

Efforts by ocean

Most major cruise lines have kicked in financially in relief and recovery efforts by delivering similar aforementioned supplies, including prefabricated housing to help reestablish communities. The lines also have provided free shuttle service to first responders, volunteers and Bahamians returning home, as well as service to evacuees wanting to leave for south Florida.

Carnival Corp. (NYSE: CCL) partnered with regional container shipping company Tropical Shipping, which specializes in ocean container shipping in the Caribbean and the Bahamas, to deliver supplies. The group moved supplies collected from donation drop areas in south Florida to Nassau at first and then to the port terminal at Freeport, which reopened Sept. 15 with some limitations to its normal commercial operations, according to a representative with the Freeport Container Terminal.

Lewis concluded, "I am truly and especially pleased to see the amount of efforts being put forth by the local government and a number of foreign entities. When you look around, you want to cry. People have lost everything. I know we will come back stronger and better. Yes, the people need a lot of help, and the government and everyone else is doing an excellent job. We have done this before. It may be a longer than usual road back, but the future for the Bahamas and Grand Bahama still looks great and we're going to keep that mindset."

Image Sourced from Wikimedia Commons

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