News from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

October 5, 2017

Newswise — Troy, N.Y. — Two weeks after Hurricane Maria wrecked devastation on Puerto Rico, destroying the power grid and leaving millions without access to necessities, distributing aid remains an issue. Extreme events pose serious logistical challenges to emergency and aid organizations active in preparation, response, and recovery operations, as the disturbances they bring about turn normal conditions into chaos. On Thursday, October 5, José Holguín-Veras, the William H. Hart Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, will host a press conference and webinar titled “Lessons from Large Disasters and Catastrophes for Post-Disaster Response: Implications for Puerto Rico” beginning at 11:30 a.m.  The press event will take place on the Rensselaer campus in the Jonsson Engineering Center (JEC), room 3117.

“In the case of catastrophic events, delivering the critical supplies required becomes an extremely difficult task because of the severe damages to the physical and virtual infrastructures and the very limited, or non-existent, transportation capacity,” said Holguín-Veras. “In the aftermath of catastrophic events like Hurricane Maria, the relief problems in Puerto Rico are the result of the predictable effects of a catastrophic event that hampered the local capacity to respond to the event and destroyed communication networks.” 

Holguín-Veras noted that the amount of manpower needed to do local distribution is tremendous. “On average, local distribution requires 50 to 100 times the manpower required for the long-haul transport of the supplies.”

At Rensselaer, Holguín-Veras and his team have worked to develop a series of models to indicate the basic needs of half the population in Puerto Rico. For example, according to one model, if residents need 5 kilograms of food and water per day, disaster responders would need to establish 355 Points of Distribution (PODs) that are manned by about 20,000 workers. In addition, transporting the 8,500 metric tons of food and water every day would require a fleet of about 1,440 midsize trucks.

In another model, Holguín-Veras noted that if residents needed 20 kilograms of food, water, and other supplies, the 355 Points of Distribution (PODs) would still require 20,000 workers; however, transporting the 34,000 metric tons of food and water every day would require a fleet of about 5,500 midsize trucks.

“The recovery process is made more difficult by the prevailing lack of knowledge about the nature and challenges of post-disaster humanitarian logistics,” Holguín-Veras said. “In the case of Puerto Rico, organizing the local distribution effort is a humongous undertaking that requires assembling and organizing a workforce larger than the size of the average U.S. Army division, without communications and severely impacted infrastructure. A concerted effort involving the federal government, local officials, and communities is needed to eliminate the crisis.”

The October 5 presentation discusses the important lessons that ought to be learned from these disasters, and the implications for the response to Puerto Rico. The presentation is based on the quick response fieldwork conducted by Holguín-Veras and his colleagues on the largest disasters of recent times, which include, among many others, the 2011 Tohoku disasters in Japan, the 2010 Port-au-Prince earthquake, and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina.

Professor Jose Holguín-Veras’ research is not for the faint of heart. He was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He traveled to Haiti less than a week after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. And he visited Japan in 2011 as soon as U.S. travel restrictions to the area were lifted following the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis.

At these and dozens of other disaster sites, Holguín-Veras took careful inventory of the relief policies, procedures, preparations, and infrastructure in place. His work, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other federal agencies, aims to analyze what went right, and identify what could be improved in preparation for future disasters. Holguín-Veras is an adviser to many international governments on these matters.

A key facet of Holguín-Veras’ research looks at donations, donation patterns, and how donated money is used. Some of the stories he unearthed are bewildering: wedding dresses and winter coats sent to Florida after a summer hurricane; pork meat donated to Muslim earthquake victims in Turkey; or 10 freight containers sent to Port-au-Prince filled with donated refrigerators that required a voltage different from what is used in Haiti.

While these humanitarian donations were sent with good intentions, they generally clog up the limited supply chains into disaster areas and occupy the time of volunteers who could be contributing in other ways. And for the donations that are usable, there is often no system, network, or infrastructure in place to get those items to those people who need it. Sadly, in the end, many of these donations simply end up abandoned or in landfills.

Holguín-Veras is the recipient of a number of national awards, including the 2013 White House Transportation Champion of Change Award, the Milton Pikarsky Memorial Award in 1996, and the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award, for his contributions to freight transportation modeling and economics. His research interests are in the areas of freight transportation modeling and economics, transportation planning, and humanitarian logistics. He is a member of numerous technical committees at the key professional organizations, and referee for the major professional journals. Holguín-Veras is president of the Scientific Committee of the Pan-American Conference of Transportation and Traffic Engineering and Logistics, elected member of the Council for the Association for European Transport, and member of the Scientific Committee of the World Conference of Transport Research. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Holguín-Veras’ research exemplifies the vision of The New Polytechnic, an emerging paradigm for teaching, learning, and research at Rensselaer, the foundation of which is the recognition that global challenges and opportunities are so great they cannot be adequately addressed by even the most talented person working alone. Rensselaer serves as a crossroads for collaboration — working with partners across disciplines, sectors, and geographic regions — to address complex global challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies, many of which are developed at Rensselaer.

Information Regarding Rensselaer’s Humanitarian Logistics Research Group

Rensselaer’s Humanitarian Logistics Research Group has pioneered the multidisciplinary study of post-disaster humanitarian logistic operations. Using a holistic approach encompassing field work, quantitative characterization of operations, and basic research on analytical modeling, the group has: identified the key lessons learned from the response to the largest disasters of recent times, translated these lessons into actionable policy recommendations, shared these suggestions with disaster response agencies, developed new paradigms of humanitarian logistic models that account for material convergence, deprivation costs and other unique features of post-disaster operations. As part of the field work, the group has conducted detailed analyses of the most prominent disasters of recent times, including Hurricane Katrina, the Port-au-Prince earthquake, the tornadoes in Joplin and Alabama, Hurricane Irene, the Tohoku disasters in Japan, and the earthquakes in Nepal and Ecuador.

NOTE: Webinar Details

Registration is not required to participate in the webinar. titled “Lessons of Large Disasters for Post-Disaster Response: Implications for Puerto Rico,” beginning at 11:30 a.m. EST. To access the webinar, visit Connection Details: Audio (Dial In): 1-866-742-9576. Enter participant code: 9073748

About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, founded in 1824, is America’s first technological research university. For nearly 200 years, Rensselaer has been defining the scientific and technological advances of our world. Rensselaer faculty and alumni represent 85 members of the National Academy of Engineering, 17 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 25 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 8 members of the National Academy of Medicine, 8 members of the National Academy of Inventors, and 5 members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, as well as 6 National Medal of Technology winners, 5 National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With 7,000 students and nearly 100,000 living alumni, Rensselaer is addressing the global challenges facing the 21st century—to change lives, to advance society, and to change the world. To learn more, go to


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Jessica Otitigbe | News and Editorial Services | Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Office: (518) 276-6050 | Mobile: (518) 466-3907   | Email: [email protected]

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