Freight Forwarders Key to Emergency Logistics

November 6th, 2017

Response to the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Irma provided another example of freight forwarders’ vital role in rapidly getting aid to victim populations.

When disasters create emergency situations, transport and logistics companies play critical roles in responding to the crises. Yet while maintaining their customary quality of service in those efforts, freight forwarding specialists must perform under considerable pressure, tight time constraints and shrinking resources as the world rushes to help.

A recent illustration came after Hurricane Irma's destruction across the Caribbean. Hardest hit by the Category 5 storm was the French island territory of Saint Martin, which was almost entirely flattened by Irma's Sept. 7 passage. The destruction was so extensive it created a nightmare trifecta for outsiders seeking to help: phone communication was cut, electricity and other utilities systems wrecked and transport infrastructure like the island's airport destroyed.

The challenge facing freight forwarders and their assistance-providing clients was to efficiently prepare and dispatch huge reserves of aid and reconstruction material to a ravaged island isolated from the outside. That was further complicated by the abundance of organizations seeking to help Saint Martin, and which quickly snatched up available transport and logistics assets – making both increasingly rare and expensive.

That bottlenecking of good intentions became evident in Pointe-à-Pitre, the Guadeloupe island city whose airport became the main destination for aid en route for nearby Saint Martin. As humanitarian and reconstruction workers and materials poured in from around the world, organizations relied on freight forwarding partners to not just keep finding reliable transport to Pointe-à-Pitre; they also expected securing of increasingly sparse landing slots, unloading equipment, airplane parking spaces and lodgings for flight crews.

"Handling all those details is part of the job, and it can take a lot of scrambling to obtain everything required on time," says Karine Dantier, freight charter director for Bolloré Logistics in Paris, which organized transport for two big French groups that sent teams and equipment to restore cut electricity and phone service on Saint Martin.

Once they'd managed to have staff and material unloaded in Pointe-a-Pitre, assisting organizations needed to get those to ravaged Saint Martin. To do so, they again turned to freight forwarding specialists to deal with the destroyed island's near total isolation. Contrary relying on improvisation as problems arose, most specialists provided answers by preparing action in advance.

Contacted by its electricity client before Irma had even struck, for example, Bolloré Logistics established a crisis cell to put a plan into place. As Ms. Dantier worked to secure use of two Antonov 124s, two Illushin 76s and a Boeing 747 for cargo rotations between Paris and Pointe-a-Pitre, director for the Antilles-Guyana zone and Saint Martin crisis cell manager Arnaud Bouget assembled a five-person team from France to get to the island and provide vital information on conditions there.

"Roads were ruined, ports damaged, customs procedures chaotic and pretty much everything reduced to basics at best," recalled Stéphane Maistre, Bolloré Logistics regional director for the area, who oversaw staff relays onto Saint Martin.

Mr. Maistre also organized a 10-day rotation of planes arriving in Pointe-à-Pitre at night, and the departure each morning of barges used to transfer arriving cargo to Saint Martin. There again, the presence of local staff proved crucial to keeping things flowing most effectively.

"We needed eyes and ears on Saint Martin to help us find the best way of moving forward, and to ensure material got where it needed to be as fast as possible," he says.

That presence was vital in overseeing unloading and movement of generators, transformers, cables, vehicles and motorized scissor lifts to hang suspended electric networks once they reached Saint Martin. The synchronized teamwork allowed electricity to be partially restored on Saint Martin within a week, with limited phone communications re-established after that.

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