From 9/11 to Fukushima: The Science of Donated Stuff

September 7, 2011

From 9/11 to Fukushima: The Science of Donated Stuff

Humanitarian Logistics Expert and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor Jose Holguín-Veras Impacted Personally, Professionally by Terrorist Attacks on Sept. 11, 2001

For years, Jose Holguín-Veras had a ritual. Prior to each and every monthly meeting with colleagues and former students on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center Tower 1, he would stop and buy a hot mocha at a coffee shop on the ground level.

Even today, 10 years after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, shook the world and destroyed the Twin Towers, the smell of hot mocha brings Holguín-Veras back to those meetings with state and city transportation officials. Among the ranks of these officials were a handful of his former students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. They would meet to discuss Holguín-Veras’ ongoing transportation research, new transportation initiatives, and other topics. On the day of the tragedy, most of his colleagues in Tower 1 escaped with their lives.

Beyond the personal impact of the terrorist attacks, Holguín-Veras was one of several Rensselaer professors tasked with studying and learning from the aftermath of the tragedy. His research projects started with air travel, but took an unexpected turn to a topic entirely new to academia: the logistics of donations.

Within a few months after Sept. 11, 2001, Holguín-Veras launched an investigation into the disaster’s large-scale effects on American attitudes toward air travel. Leading a study for the National Science Foundation (NSF), his research team took to airports across the country and collected massive amounts of data and interviews. One of their key findings was a direct connection between security lines and the number of flyers: the longer a passenger had to spend waiting in a line at the airport, the more likely he or she was to drive instead of fly for their next trip.

“We found that given a choice to travel by car or plane, an individual’s decision is highly influenced by airport inspection times,” said Holguín-Veras, the William Howard Hart Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rensselaer, and director of the university’s Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment. “If you are picked to receive a random inspection, the stress of your overall air travel experience raises by a factor of four. Getting inspected, even if you are doing absolutely nothing wrong, is mentally taxing. So in general, the longer the inspection time, the less inclined we are to use air as a means of travel.”

About five months after the terrorist attacks, Holguín-Veras received an email that would forever change the trajectory of his academic career. In February 2002, a friend sent him a magazine story about a warehouse in northern New Jersey that housed $75 million worth of goods donated in the wake of the disaster. The problem, however, was that most of this donated stuff was unusable — everything from wedding dresses to expired medicine to children’s squirt guns. And for the little that was usable, there was no system, network, or infrastructure in place to get that stuff to those people who needed it. So the stuff just sat in a warehouse until someone with a lot of time and ample resources could figure out what to do with it.

The story floored Holguín-Veras. The problem and challenge also spoke to his inner engineer. “For the first time in my life, I saw the possibility that donations could be a bad thing,” he said. “It was the genesis of my interest and involvement in the study of donations logistics and materials convergence.”

Today, 10 years later, Holguín-Veras is the leading international authority on the topic. His team, supported by the NSF and other federal agencies, is academia’s largest group dedicated to the study of humanitarian logistics.

It’s not a topic for the faint of heart. Following any major disaster, the first response is search and rescue to help find trapped survivors and minimize human casualties. This is followed by the first phase of recovery: determining what critical supplies are needed — usually water, food, and medical supplies — and establishing a supply chain to deliver those goods to people in need. Spontaneous social networks emerge in the absence of conventional supply chains. These networks, often centering on religious organizations and nonprofits local to the affected region, have a rich knowledge of the regional population and are generally in a strong position to help.

To get good, meaningful data requires Holguín-Veras and team to visit the site as soon as possible following the disaster. The list is cringe-inducing. He’s been all over the Midwest, visiting small towns in the days following major tornados. In 2005, Holguín-Veras was in New Orleans after the levee failed due to Hurricane Katrina. In early 2010, he was in Port-au-Prince a week after Haiti was ravaged by a major earthquake. Most recently, he was in northeastern Japan, surveying the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and resulting nuclear reactor crisis.

In each situation, Holguín-Veras and team were on hand to take careful inventory of the relief policies, procedures, preparations, and infrastructure in place. Their goal is to help analyze what went right, and what could be improved upon in preparation for future disasters. Additionally, Holguín-Veras looks at donations, donation patterns, and how donated money is used. He feels strongly that monetary donations to trusted relief organizations are far superior to donating physical goods — which stress the relief supply chain and, while well intentioned, lead to logistical difficulties.

Far from wanting to discourage donations, Holguín-Veras said he is trying to streamline the logistics behind the convergence of relief goods. His team uses collected data to refine advanced mathematical formulas at the heart of disaster relief supply chains. These formulas inform software tools that allow governments and first responders to forecast and assess what critical supplies will be needed, and to create mechanisms for controlling the flow of donated non-critical supplies to affected areas.

It’s certainly no vacation to visit disaster sites, but Holguín-Veras said he is driven to continue this line of research because it offers him the opportunity to make a direct impact in people’s lives.

“Of all the different things I study, I consider disaster research to be the most important by far. There are other areas of research that are far less stressful and generate far more funding. But what we do here could mean the difference between life and death, or the difference between massive suffering and less suffering,” he said. “Knowing that our work could save lives is what keeps me going.”

For more information about Holguín-Veras’ research at Rensselaer, visit:

Contact: Michael Mullaney
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