Communication needs strengthening between the transportation industry and emergency management agencies for effective natural disaster response, according to disaster preparedness experts. When Hurricane Laura hit the Gulf Coast this summer, it was clear that these partnerships were more vital than ever.
Tulane University professor of emergency and security studies, Robert Allen, said focusing on risk assessment of each emergency situation is key, as well as determining the availability of resources and teamwork.
“You look at what transportation infrastructure you have,” he explained. “You’ve got to have good knowledge of transportation routes.”
He also suggested fleets work with law enforcement and the U.S. National Guard to stay aware of any problems regarding route accessibility.
In late August, the National Hurricane Center reported that Hurricane Laura was headed across the Gulf of Mexico at winds of up to 125 miles per hour. The day before, the Center had reported Post-tropical Cyclone Marco moving along the coast of Louisiana at up to 30 miles per hour.
In response, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sent out a regional emergency declaration to truckers working within Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas relief efforts. State officials in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana also issued their own states of emergency and disaster. FMCSA’s declaration gave exemption from Parts 390-299 of its Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations regarding hours of service, longer combination vehicles, and parts needed for safe operation.
Texas Trucking Association’s John Esparza said TTA has been working diligently with Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security officials, port authorities, and members of the governor’s office for up-to-date safety information.
Ports in New Orleans and Houston were working toward potential closures before Hurricane Laura reached land, as storms can cause ships to disengage from their routes. Esparza said this communication with government officials was incredibly important during that time, as the Port of Houston processes almost 70% of Gulf Coast container traffic.
“With major weather events like hurricanes, freight movements tend to follow a common pattern,” said DAT Freight and Analytics in a tweet. “But, within that pattern, circumstances and freight flows change quickly.”
2017’s Hurricane Harvey brought with it many learning opportunities relating to emergency preparedness, Esparza explained.
“We’ve already been sending out information to our membership, should we find ourselves in the situation that we have experienced in the past,” he said. “We know it is great to identify and have a network of drivers ready. We learned before that even if you have 100 drivers that you identify, once the storm comes in, you might have 12 or 15 of them that are even available or able to assist.”
Still, current emergency practices are “night and day” when compared to those of 2005, said Allen, who worked with the United Nations Police and the Harbor Police Department aligned with the Port of New Orleans during that time. Hurricane Laura hit the coast around the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in 2005, and Allen said preparedness techniques are much more efficient now, especially when it comes to prepositioning supplies like water and ready-to-eat meals.
“My dad told me one time, ‘Sometimes when you tap somebody on the shoulder, you may not get their attention, but if you crack them in the head with a two-by-four, they’re going to listen,’” Allen said. “Katrina was a two-by-four, and we listened, and we learned a lot from it.”
One aspect of preparation that was definitely learned was building bridges of communication far in advance of any catastrophic event, said University of California-Berkely doctoral candidate in transportation engineering, Stephen Wong.
“Pick up a phone and make sure the supply chain network is good to go,” he said. “You don’t want to be exchanging business cards during a disaster. You want to be changing business cards before a disaster.”
Suppliers and agencies should also stay connected in order to ensure important items like personal protective equipment can be stored and contracts can be fulfilled when necessary, Wong explained.
“Build out infrastructure, partnerships, and storage for rapid relief,” he said.
Additionally, natural disasters should be looked at as recurring issues and not one-time events, said Louisiana State University engineering professor, Brian Wolshon.
“I believe these are still looked at as one-off events,” he said. “[Hurricane Laura] is not a one-off event. It’s going to probably happen next year, if not the year after. What there needs to be is kind of a more holistic, systematic approach, and it needs to be more mainstreamed into thinking for transportation.”