Hurricane Katrina

Disaster relief's chicken-egg problem

November 15, 2013: 2:33 PM ET

Aid doesn't start flowing until after a disaster takes place, but NGOs and relief organizations need cash before it all hits the fan. How do you solve that pickle of a problem?

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FORTUNE -- A week after typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, food, water, and medicine started pouring into the island nation, but they arrived with no designated way to reach the storm's neediest victims.

Six days after the storm hit, there were reports that most citizens in Tacloban, the city of 220,000 hit hard by the typhoon, had not received any aid and were going on a week without food, water, shelter, and other necessities.

Lack of vehicles, fuel, and manpower are what's holding up the flow of aid in the Philippines. In the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the airport in Port-au-Prince was the problem; it was too small to handle the large numbers of aid flights. Some planes carrying rescue teams, medical personnel, and equipment were delayed or diverted.

In addition to mass destruction, loss of life, and the need for renewal, many recent natural disasters have been hampered by a less tragic but still pressing problem: a lack of logistics. With research pointing to more severe storms in the future, the aid bottlenecks are doomed to grow larger and more painful.

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Since every natural disaster plays out in an unpredictable and chaotic way, there is no sure-fire solution to easing the relief gridlock, but logistics experts make one (quite obvious) thing clear: Having emergency resources in place prior to a disaster would help the flow of supplies.

Weather models pinpoint geographic areas most vulnerable to repeated disasters. The Philippines, for example, ranks third on the United Nation's 2012 Risk Index, which measures how a region's exposure to natural hazards and climate change coincides with vulnerable societies. Stockpiling extra food, water, and medicine in such a region in preparation for a disaster would reduce the wait time before storm or earthquake victims receive the resources they need.

That is, of course, easier said than done.

The UN has five depots of supplies around the world that it can tap when disaster strikes. The closest one to the Philippines was in Malaysia. The Red Cross has stockpiles too, though it had already deployed the supplies it had stored in Manila prior to the typhoon as part of a response to the earthquake that struck the Philippines in October.

"There's an understanding that if we have more funding ahead of time we'd be even more responsive," says Jarrod Goentzel, director of the Humanitarian Response Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That sentiment rings especially true for smaller aid groups. Relief organizations that are chronically hard-pressed for funds don't always have capital on hand to procure emergency supplies and place them in risky regions just in case. Garnering money and resources for disaster response is a whole lot easier after a fatal storm or earthquake hits, rather than before the worst has already come. For example, the non-profit Global Giving, which connects donors with grassroots projects, had provided Japanese non-profit organizations with $163,000 in the decade before the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster. It handed out $9.3 million afterwards.

But some non-profits are still giving advanced measures a shot.

Direct Relief, for example, launched its Hurricane Preparedness Program in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It stockpiles 140 medical items most often needed post-hurricane in 50 clinics from Texas to the Carolinas every year prior to June 1, the start of the hurricane season. If the medicine hasn't been used at season's end -- November 30 -- the clinics can use the items to meet everyday patient needs. "That way, they don't just die on the shelves," says Brett Williams, the organization's emergency response coordinator. This year Direct Relief also gave out 15 medical modules capable of treating 5,000 people for one month to hospitals in Central America and the Caribbean.

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More organizations could get ahead of the disaster curve with adequate funding. Goentzel of MIT points to a strategy used by UNICEF that might help aid groups get a financial jumpstart on disaster relief. In 2011, the humanitarian relief organization for children set up a bridge fund with investors' net worth grants, below-market-rate loans, and guarantees that gives UNICEF's supply division cash until regular donations are available.

For now, Direct Relief is funding its hurricane prevention system the old-fashioned way, with fundraising. It spends $450,000 on a program that delivers $2 million worth of medical supplies -- many of which are donated by large pharmaceutical companies. Williams says the organization struggles to raise funds for it since asking a donor to help prevent a crisis isn't as easy a pitch as asking someone to help abate an already dire situation, one where lives are on the line.

"Our [fundraising] pitch is that there's a scheduled emergency time period every year when people are extra vulnerable to storms. This program will ensure that there's no interruption in care," Williams says. "Now people are saying, 'Why didn't you think of bringing it to Asia?' It's not that we haven't thought about it, it's that we don't have the resources at this moment to do it."

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