The Challenges of Provisioning

The world is experiencing uncommon storms, widespread droughts, and excessive rainfalls, with the resulting failures of crops – from livestock drowning in the 15 feet of water left after Hurricane Harvey in Texas to grain and soybeans in Louisiana, to over 1 million acres of crops destroyed after half of Bangladesh went underwater in August.  Food distribution channels were also interrupted by storms, with food supplies in Puerto Rico reaching critically low levels after Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico imports most of its food supplies.  Four days after the hurricane, the Port of San Juan reopened.  The port had power and computers, and although several ships had turned back before the storm, thousands of shipping containers held goods bound for Home Depot, Walmart, and other outlets. What they didn’t have: cleared roadways, fuel for trucks, or drivers.  Residents had no access to cash, checking accounts, or credit cards without ATMs, banks, and internet – and because of the crippling economic crisis, few people had the cash on hand to afford more than a week of emergency supplies, including food. The obstacles were on the island, not on the sea, so waiving the Jones Act (which requires goods sent between U.S. ports to be carried on ships built, owned, and operated by the U.S.) didn’t address the real problem.

Broken distribution chains are caused by a cascade of variables, from the producer and their own supply chain (the availability of parts and equipment, raw materials, fuel and labour) to the commercial outlets that ultimately put goods in the hands of consumers, with all of the uncertainties that accompany a physical location and the staffing required to operate. Disasters are no respecters of national boundaries, socioeconomic status, or quality purveyors of fine merchandise – everyone and everything in their path is subject to the storm’s wrath.

Rebuilding the distribution system begins with energy.  Electrical poles, wires, transformers and trucks are in short supply, as are the skilled workers to rebuild the electrical distribution network.  Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has lost 30% of its workers since 2012 due to its struggle with increasing debt.  Officials state that there is adequate diesel fuel on the island, but distribution is hampered by the difficulty of navigating blocked roads, a decimated fleet of trucks, and personnel who are dealing with immediate problems of their own.

It is important to recognize that Puerto Rico is not a one-way supply chain, and that the mainland will also be affected by the loss of productivity.  The island is home to 12 of the top 10 global pharmaceutical and biotech companies, with manufacturing facilities on the island creating 7 out of the top 10 drugs sold globally.  Forbes reports that medical and chemical products are responsible for 89.5% of Puerto Rico’s exports.

Solutions to supply chain interruptions begin with a steady fuel supply, but they don’t end there.  Protected depots for emergency supplies and delivery vehicles would help.  So would storm-resistant housing for critical employees, because if workers are in peril, they can’t report to work. An airport capable of rapid recovery (Isla Grande Airport opened on September 24, four days after the hurricane). Adequate refrigeration and backup power to reduce spoilage of food and medicines. Community shelters.  Generators. Armoured production facilities. The list seems endless to a territory fighting for its very survival.

Supply chain problems are exacerbated on islands – dependent on flights or ships for so much of their provisions. But the problems of Puerto Rico are also the problems of Houston, Miami, or Dhaka… every city at risk from climate-sensitive hazards.  The solutions are not a greater dependence on aid, but in the careful preparation for increased self-sufficiency in advance of the next time.