A blog post by Lily Bui, PhD candidate at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning
Puerto Rico means “rich port” in Spanish. The island’s name itself refers to one of its most important assets: its ports. Both air and sea ports in Puerto Rico are key entry and exit points for the flow of goods, people, and information.
After Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, Puerto Rico’s ports were severely damaged by the winds and storm surge, congesting critical supply chains that the island would otherwise depend on for relief supplies like food, water, generators, people, and more. For long-term recovery, Puerto Rico’s dependence upon imports for its economic survival makes it extremely vulnerable to port closures.
Our practicum course was able to visit the risk management team for Crowley (http://crowley.com/), the largest shipping company on the island. Owning 46% of the market share, Crowley imports and exports a range of cargo – from food to cars to construction materials. The company was one of the first to restore shipping services after Hurricane Maria and was one of FEMA’s partners for coordinating the delivery of aid to the island.
Cargo means lives saved. This was the ethos of the company during the hurricane response, and it has since then reflected deeply on its lessons learned from Hurricane Maria. Some of the lessons that the team shared with us, among others, were as follows:
- Take care of personnel first. About 60% of Crowley’s staff showed up to work a day after Hurricane Maria hit, and about 90% had shown up by the second day. The company provided food, water, shelter, electricity, and laundry services to employees and their family. This provided a space for boosting morale and simultaneously boosted economic production after the storm.
- Invest in more preparedness activities before hurricane season, such as a dedicated Hurricane Preparedness Month. Every meeting at Crowley’s risk management team also starts with a “safety moment” in which employees are able to point out safety practices that could be improved.
- Plan ahead to pre-stage food, water, and emergency supplies at their terminal before expected storms.
- Coordinate and build relationships with their customers, NGOs, and governments during non-disaster periods.
- Pursue microgrid technology as a means of backup power for the shipping terminal. The power outages across the entire island surprised most of the population, but it was most crippling for businesses that relied on power to operate. Microgrid technology – or similar alternatives – may assist with shipping companies’ ability to bounce back more quickly.
Islands suffer the tyranny of distance when it comes to supply chains. Because of their isolation from their continental counterparts, islands rely heavily on companies like Crowley for recovery, and essentially for their livelihoods. At day’s end, the recovery of supply chains leads to the recovery of an island’s economy, its people’s livelihood, and its overall resilience.
Featured Image: Crowley containers in the San Juan terminal shipping yard.