Strengthening Post-Hurricane Supply Chain Resilience

Supply Chain Management

The 2017 hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria—each unique and record-setting storms occurring in quick succession—stretched the response capacity of emergency management and strained supply chains that facilitate the flow of critical commodities. These experiences revealed many strengths and the vulnerabilities in national and regional supply chains. Lessons learned from these hurricanes can inform future strategies to improve supply chain management.

Based on the National Academies study Strengthening Post-Hurricane Supply Chain Resilience, this document identifies opportunities across all stages of the disaster management cycle for increasing the post-disaster resilience of supply chains. A companion document provides an overview and recommendations from the Supply Chain Resilience study.

Map local and extended critical infrastructure networks and their interdependencies

Supply chains rely on critical infrastructure such as power, communication, transportation facilities (e.g., roads, airports, ports)—all of which can be damaged and disrupted during a disaster. The magnitude of damage, and how quickly the system can recover from damage, depends on the resilience of the infrastructure; and the status of the infrastructure, in turn, can profoundly affect supply and demand (and ability of supply chains to meet the demand) for many critical products and services.

Understanding how interdependencies among critical systems can lead to cascading failures aids in emergency preparedness and supports risk management decision making when responding to events. Many critical supply chains are dependent upon the functioning of critical infrastructure such as energy supply (electricity, fuels), and in turn the energy sector is often dependent on the functioning of communications, water, and transportation systems. A widespread power outage—especially if it lasts for an extended period—is likely to impact the communications network, the water network, and critical supply chains for fuel, food, and other critical supplies.

map of virgin islands

Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused almost complete disruption to the Virgin Islands’ power systems. In many places, power outages lasted for more than four months, with many cascading impacts on the ability to resume normal commercial and other operations across the island. While wind and solar power generation survived, many places relied on the electric power grid. They were equipped with back-up generators, but many of these eventually failed because they were not designed to run continuously for months - obtaining generator fuel over this extended time was also a challenge.

Some grocery stores were open with items on the shelves but they were not able to execute EBT card transactions due to power outages or disruptions in communication towers. Deliveries from distribution centers to grocery stores were also disrupted due to road conditions or shortages of truck drivers.

map of puerto rico

In places where there was investment in reducing vulnerabilities (especially for hardening electric power systems), benefits are seen in terms of minimizing storm disruptions and thus bolstering the speed with which local economies could resume normal operations.

Some key steps and strategies to advance this recommendation include the following:

  • For the given jurisdiction of concern (i.e., local, state, regional), support pre-disaster assessment of the criticality, vulnerability, and dependencies of key supply chain nodes, links, and supporting infrastructure; and develop protocols and systems for gathering and regularly updating information about demand, supply, infrastructure condition, and supply chain functionality. Many private sector supply chains already utilize sophisticated tools for sensing supply and demand changes, system bottlenecks and vulnerabilities, and other critical information. Public sector officials need comparable capabilities and tools that can interface with, and build upon, these private sector capabilities.
  • Emergency management offices at the local, state, and regional levels (working with critical partners, for instance, in the private sector and in academic research centers) are likely best suited to lead much of this information collection and analysis work. FEMA can play a critical leadership role, however, in building capacity and providing support for such efforts—not only through financial incentives (i.e., grant programs) but also through active training activities that bring together local knowledge with experience and perspectives drawn from government and business leaders nationwide.


Map supply chain characteristics for critical products, for example nodes and their inventories, links between nodes and their capacities, lead times, and system bottlenecks

Modeling frameworks are often needed to integrate these complex data streams and extract practical decision-support information. The growing field of disaster and humanitarian logistics offers some useful examples of the types of models and analytical frameworks needed. Such advances would enhance understanding of supply chain vulnerabilities during preparedness stages and provide better visibility into demand/supply gaps during response stages. They would also enable emergency managers to more effectively prioritize the distribution of critical relief supplies and anticipate possible cascading effects of those decisions. Perhaps most importantly, building system-scale understanding enhances capacity to focus on the strategic restoration of broken links in supply chains and infrastructure, thereby helping normal economic activity rebound quickly.

If one develops an understanding of how well critical supply chain components can meet demand during “normal” times, this often provides insights on where the biggest gaps and vulnerabilities that are likely to arise during emergencies: where will relief items most likely need to be delivered, and what preparation steps could be taken to reduce post-disaster response needs?

The United States regularly experiences shortages of some lifesaving drugs and other supplies essential to patient care. Saline is one example, as it is required for the majority of hospitalized patients, with national demand of more than 40 million bags per month. One of the main producers of saline, supplying about half of U.S. hospitals with small saline bags, is Baxter International, located in Puerto Rico. There was already a shortage of saline solution prior to Hurricane Maria, and the impact of the hurricane on the Baxter plant caused the problem to reach critical levels. The lack of redundancy in overall manufacturing capacity makes this a highly vulnerable supply.

map of puerto rico

FEMA is in a unique position to lead cross-functional efforts between public and private sector entities (including small businesses, local governments, and others with limited resources) to coordinate pre-disaster planning discussions and exercises. Improved planning and communications will provide FEMA with a better view of the resilience, capacities, and limitations of stakeholders in critical supply chains and thus better understanding of when companies and critical public services can resume operations.

Some key steps and strategies to advance this recommendation are to:

  • Ensure that emergency preparedness plans delineate clear roles and responsibilities.
  • Strengthen industry interface with local, state, and federal agencies through efficient communication channels; coordinate plans for identifying, obtaining, pre-positioning,
  • Educate public officials, policy makers, and response personnel on key lifeline-sector supply chains and how they work, to facilitate better decision making, help manage expectations, and foster effective response planning.
  • Create mutual aid agreements within lifeline sectors and ensure that all participants have a common understanding of policies, authorities, and procedures.
  • Encourage private sector entities to subscribe to the DHS Homeland Security Information Network for accessing the Emergency Services portal and to join available state, regional, national Business Emergency Operations Center platforms.
  • Establish local community partnerships among local emergency management entities and local nongovernmental organizations and community groups that have established networks and relationships with individuals who need services (e.g., Meals on Wheels, adult daycare programs, faith-based organizations), for help with identifying and supporting vulnerable households.

Determine Critical Supply Chain Nodes and Links

Criticality of a network node, link, or other component measures the extent to which a disruption of the component will degrade the functionality of the network (which could be measured as the on-time delivery of supply to the end customer).

  • In places where state and local governments invested in reducing the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure (especially for hardening electric power systems), this did yield benefits in terms of minimizing storm disruptions and thus bolstering the speed with which local economies could resume normal operations. Where these sorts of investments did not occur, more severe disruptions arose.
  • The ability of emergency managers to understand post-storm supply chain bottlenecks was constrained by limited pre-storm assessment of vulnerable and critical supply chain nodes, together with information disruptions resulting from power and communication loss.

Determine Vulnerable Supply Chain Nodes and Links

Vulnerability measures the likelihood that a node or link will be disrupted. For example, a production facility in a hurricane-prone region is more vulnerable than one that is not in a hurricane-prone region; and facility with sophisticated fire protection is less vulnerable than one without. The goal is not to insist on accurate estimates of failure probabilities, but instead to call out nodes and links with significant risk of being disrupted.

  • Vulnerable infrastructure, especially for power and communications, is a predictable vulnerability, and the speed with which supply chains can recover often heavily depends on the resilience of this infrastructure. In places where there was investment in reducing vulnerabilities (especially for hardening electric power systems), benefits are seen in terms of minimizing storm disruptions and thus bolstering the speed with which local economies could resume normal operations.

Assess Community and Private Sector Preparedness
Photo of street--pre disaster

The greatest opportunities for building resilience come from preparedness efforts undertaken before disasters strike.

Some examples of critical preparedness actions that businesses or other organizations can take include:

  • Develop and regularly update emergency preparedness and continuity of operations plans
  • Conduct training and worst-case scenario drills
  • Test emergency communication protocols and identify workarounds for communications system failure
  • Develop plans to protect the health and safety of organizational personnel during disaster events

Other critical factors for enabling successful disaster response are clearly defined processes and mechanisms for coordination and information sharing—especially platforms to engage across levels of government and across public and private sector organizations. It takes time to establish the needed relationships and trust, which is why this engagement must begin well before a disaster occurs. The lack of such mechanisms leads to duplication of efforts, gaps in service delivery, confusion over ownership of issues, and in severe cases, competition for scarce resources.


Forecast risk based on event likelihood for a geographic area

To assess the vulnerability of supply chain nodes and links to disruption from natural hazards requires an understanding of the natural hazard events that may affect a location, and the probability of such events.

Resources from other National Academies work provide examples for identifying and characterizing hazards and hazard probability to inform risk assessment:


Advance coordination and information sharing among public/private sector stakeholders

Effective preparedness actions can greatly reduce the need for external aid, demands on relief supply chains, and the timeline for recovery. Preparedness can encompass many types of activities, with priorities varying from one place to another. In some places, mitigating potential infrastructure failures may be paramount, whereas in other places, advancing debris management planning is a high priority (see Box 4.2 from the full report) roader systems perspective, investments and attention among different preparedness actions can be better prioritized.

The problem of debris

Clearing post-storm debris from roads and ports can impact search and rescue; evacuations; distribution of food water, and medicines; access to critical services; and restoration of power and telecommunication services.

Advance coordination and information sharing among public/private sector stakeholders:

  • Ensure that emergency preparedness plans delineate clear roles and responsibilities.
  • Strengthen industry interface with local, state, and federal agencies through efficient communication channels; coordinate plans for identifying, obtaining, pre-positioning, distributing, and securing resources (e.g., fuel, water, food, generators) during a disaster; and coordinate plans for ensuring adequate materials and equipment for response and recovery.
  • Put supply contracts in place ahead of time, in particular for fuel and generators. Consider putting in place agreements with transportation companies, such as regional trucking companies, for the distribution of commodities.
  • Plan for the fuel supply required for a large-scale evacuation and response, and ensure that adequate supplies are strategically positioned along evacuation routes.
  • Create mutual aid agreements within lifeline sectors, such as those established by the electric utility industry, the water and wastewater agency response network, and the association of state and territorial health care officials.20 Ensure that all participants have a common understanding of policies, authorities, and procedures (including those for personnel security and credentialing).21
  • Establish local community partnerships among local emergency management entities and local nongovernmental organizations and community groups that have established networks and relationships with individuals who need services (e.g., Meals on Wheels, adult daycare programs, faith-based organizations), for help with identifying and supporting vulnerable households.
  • Develop plans to address the needs of workforce personnel and their families during disasters, including adequate backup human resources to address “personnel fatigue.”
  • Establish a dedicated private sector liaison in each state and regional emergency management agency, to engage with businesses year-round.
  • Plan for the location of relief aid points of distribution, and make arrangements for local organizations and networks to staff them.
  • Collect data on an area’s disease and risk profiles, to aid planning decisions by emergency management agencies and organizations regarding what drugs to stockpile or bring to an affected area.

Many of the actions listed above involve not only FEMA, but also state and local government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and business and industry owners and operators.


Take steps to improve supply chain agility and strength

Over the past decade, business continuity planning has expanded significantly, particularly in advance of hurricane season, because of growing pressure for companies to recover quickly (often within hours) after a storm hits and to maintain significant capabilities during disaster conditions.

Plans should consider how to manage resources by understanding and taking inventory of critical business functions, sites, materials, and equipment needed for response and recovery operations. This may include consideration of factors such as transportation and communication equipment, off-site back-up locations and capabilities, maintaining adequate supplies of essential materials, and developing robust contracts with suppliers who can respond quickly during an emergency and enable continuity of operations.

map of puerto rico

Caribbean Restaurants, operator of more than 170 Burger King locations across Puerto Rico, was well equipped to handle problems after Hurricane Maria—because they had inventories, communications systems, and workers ready to respond. They were able to rely on an experienced network of drivers and an internal fleet of 25 trucks to deliver product to its stores. They also benefited from a company-owned 10-day supply of diesel, supplemented with fuel shipments from longtime supplier Empire Gas—which in turn had its own distribution channels, containers, and fleet of trucks to distribute gas across 40 different stations throughout the island.

Fuel Supply Contingencies: Contracts and Agreements

A key priority of preparedness in the aftermath of major storms is ensuring the availability of fuel for response, restoration, and recovery activities. Depending on market conditions, fuel inventories may be low and prices high as demand for tight supplies increases.

During a shortage, customers with contracts or agreements via a primary fuel supplier are typically served first. During tight fuel markets, customers with contractual agreements may be given priority to purchase an allotted level of fuel based on previous historical purchases at their fuel supply facility or terminal. When feasible, establishing firm contractual agreements is a good option for ensuring that companies and organizations are prepared for the next major event.

photo of fuel station
photo of fuel station

Communication Protocols and “Work-Around” Systems

Effective communications among governments, private, and public entities are necessary in preparing, responding, and recovering from an emergency situation. Communication mechanisms and equipment should be deployed with appropriate back-up plans to agencies and organizations involved. Comprehensive communication systems, including the use of translators when necessary, should be in place to supplement any communications that may be lost in the event of a power outage. Communications equipment should be thoroughly tested, and responders should become familiar with the equipment, systems, and procedures during training and exercises.

map of puerto rico

After Hurricane Maria, more than 95 percent of cell signal towers in Puerto Rico were out of service (FCC, 2018), and emergency management officials reported how their staff operated “blindly” for a number of days and thus were not able to adequately respond due to lack of communications.

During Hurricane Maria, the collapse of power and communication infrastructure across Puerto Rico created a host of cascading effects on supply chain dynamics. Many truck drivers could not be reached due to non-functioning communications networks, and this became one of the factors causing a shortage of truck capacity and thus delaying delivery of critical goods. Without power and communication, retailers could not place orders with distributors, distributors could not place orders with suppliers, and orders could not be delivered due in part to the inability to mobilize trucks and drivers.

Plans to Protect Health and Safety of Organizational Personnel

During a disaster, government and industry may experience a loss or shortage of human resources to perform critical jobs and provide adequate contingencies. Businesses should maintain lists of full contact information for all employees and ensure that lists are updated frequently and maintained at multiple locations. Preparedness plans should address relocation or return of evacuated employees to the region. Housing resources need to be identified for employees and their families. Safety and security requirements, including protocols for re-entry credentials, must be assessed and addressed prior to returning evacuated employees or deploying replacement employees.

  • Florida: Some gas stations did not operate at capacity even though they had inventory of fuel, because people were not available to staff the stores. So, even though there was supply, human resource limitations or disruptions in the infrastructure led to a mismatch between demand and supply.
  • Puerto Rico: Crowley Maritime housed and fed employees and their families at the Port of San Juan to ensure the availability of workers to continue operations.
  • Texas: In Houston, it was reported that one large electric utility (CenterPoint) set up childcare services for its employees who responded to Hurricane Maria.

Enhance education and training (community, business, government)

Training and Worst-case Scenario Drills for Preparedness, Response, and Recovery Operations

Training programs provide a necessary step in preparing for disaster incidents. In addition to training, personnel should exercise plans to test and evaluate roles and responsibilities, procedures, communications, equipment, etc. Lessons learned and best practices that were observed during exercises can then be used to update existing plans to make them more robust. Federal, state, and local governments and the private sector sometimes conduct exercises and workshops to prepare for disaster incidents.

map of texas

In June 2017, two months before Hurricane Harvey, Texas State Emergency Management conducted an exercise to test the state’s hurricane preparedness program. The scenario was a major Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in the Houston-Galveston-Sabine Lake region. More than 1,100 participants took part over the nine-day event.

Some key steps and strategies to advance this recommendation are to

  • Provide all stakeholders engaged in emergency management of disasters with at least a base level of training about supply chain dynamics, and provide senior decision makers, elected officials, and governmental financial officers with advanced training that focuses on the economic impacts of disasters—all phases, not just recovery.
  • Provide private and nonprofit entities access to training that fosters understanding of needs and opportunities to engage with government organizations in disaster preparation and response.
  • Advance development of processes, data, and models to support decision making related to supply chains during disaster operations.

Gather after-event information on infrastructure and supply chain functionality; evaluate cascading effects

The 2017 hurricanes offered numerous examples of challenges in the prioritization of scarce resources and the cascading impacts of infrastructure failures or resource allocation decisions.

Puerto Rico

Dialysis centers, which require significant amounts of water to run, were not always prioritized at the level they needed.

Containers generically marked as “disaster relief” were prioritized for unloading and distribution over other containers that held critical materials such as repair parts for generator maintenance and resin to make caps for bottle water production.

Virgin Islands

Some donated pharmaceuticals had no documented source, so local pharmacists did not feel comfortable dispensing. Also there were mismatches between the medical supplies needed and those provided by federal aid programs.

Texas There was insufficient understanding of which critical infrastructure facilities – especially waste treatment plants and power plants – provided service to which hospitals and other health facilities, so the operators of a given facility did not know whether the shutdown of a particular water treatment or power plant would affect them.
Florida The surge in demand that resulted from the evacuation of more than 6 million people caused bottlenecks at many fuel stations. As the storm struck, bottlenecks at retail gas stations were further aggravated by power outages, flooding, and staff shortages, as well as the inability of some smaller stations to obtain banking credit to keep pace with the fuel demand surge. This all forced a prolonged closure of many retail gas stations, including facilities located at critical spots along evacuation routes.

Identify and implement “reinforcement, replacement, repair” actions; make resource prioritization decisions

Decisions about the allocation of scarce resources are critical during disaster response, and these decisions can have complex cascading effects on other resources and on the ability to meet demand for certain commodities within an affected community. For example, allocating the limited truck capacity to delivering critical food and medical items may save or improve lives; yet allocating some of that capacity for carrying repair supplies to fix critical infrastructure (e.g., roads, electricity) might also save lives, especially if this means establishing connectivity to critical facilities and services such as hospitals and dialysis centers. The impacts of allocation decisions can reach well beyond local communities as well.

  • priority icon

    Are there protocols in place for prioritization? If yes, were these protocols prepared with input from stakeholders?

  • communication icon

    Are these protocols communicated broadly to ensure that everyone is aligned in understanding their respective roles and responsibilities?

  • flexibility icon

    What kind of flexibility is built into these protocols, so that priorities can change dynamically as more information becomes available?

  • leadership icon

    Who coordinates to make sure that the priorities are adjusted as needed and understands the critical inter-dependencies among different networks, demand, and supply?

Action to implement:

Prioritize recovery of infrastructure critical for resuming normal supply chain operations over delivery of materials. Critical infrastructure (e.g., power, telecommunications, transportation, roads, bridges, water) enables the operations of all supply chains. In most cases examined in this study, adequate supplies of materials existed in the areas affected by disasters, but the ability to ship and deliver those supplies was impeded by lack of roads, trucks, drivers, fuel, or electricity. Repair and rebuilding of damaged infrastructure is not currently seen as FEMA’s direct role, but the agency could be well positioned to take a more active leadership role in aiding such efforts.

map of florida

Over the decade preceding Hurricane Irma, Florida had invested in upgrading power systems infrastructure and deploying smart grid technologies that provided timelier, more accurate information about outages.

Some fuel distribution problems arose, in part because fuel racks were not powered for a period of time and the USVI has no requirements that retail gas stations have generators or are generator-ready.

map of virgin islands

As part of a strategic shift toward greater focus on restoration of pre-disaster supply chains, FEMA could aid and advise the information gathering and analysis needed to identify priorities for restoration of critical infrastructure in an affected area (e.g., a manufacturing plant that is critical for a national supply chain may not normally be on the state or local emergency management radar for priority assistance.)

The work of creating a resilient supply chain does of course have costs, but these costs are likely to be far outweighed by the benefits of equipping emergency managers with better understanding of supply chain vulnerabilities, with visibility into the causes of demand and supply gaps, and with a stronger foundation to make effective decisions about how, when, and where to deploy critical resources during emergency preparedness and response operations.

As more general illustrative guidance, please explore examples of tools from the full report that are already being developed and applied in a variety of disaster and hazard management contexts.


There are opportunities across all stages of the disaster management cycle for increasing the post-disaster resilience of supply chains. The diagram below [Figure 4.1 in the report] illustrates the diverse and highly interdependent information-gathering, preparedness, and response actions and needs involved in building resilient supply chains before, during, and after a disaster strikes.

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