February 1, 2019

Navigating Adverse Weather Conditions and Natural Disasters

Written by Garret Weigel | Supply Chain

Every year weather conditions make headlines, particularly events like fires, hurricanes, flooding, and more. In terms of extreme conditions, they have been devastating to people, their homes, and the supply chains they rely upon. The transportation environment has never been riper for a widespread adoption of technology to help forecast adverse weather conditions, reroute shipments, and provide real-time visibility and control of the cargo involved.


Adverse Weather and Disasters Proliferate

Recent California fires have left 85 people dead and 11 missing, with about 14,000 homes destroyed. California's major Pacific Coast Highway experienced massive delays and was closed in major portions, choking off vital truck transport arteries. Twelve wineries in Northern California’s wine country were badly damage or completely destroyed as the wildfires took over. Logistical routing was impeded by damaged and blocked roadways, debris, and a downed communications infrastructure from cell tower damage, disallowing normal communications.


Elsewhere in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas, hurricanes adversely affected end-to-end supply chains, inhibiting many transport modes. Airports were closed and rail traffic was suspended. Truck transport was greatly interrupted due to flooding: truckers with full loads were stranded with no viable way out until the flood and storms subsided. Ports also suffered damaged equipment and facilities as well as flooding in terminals and container yards.


Distant Effects

On top of all that is the ripple effect: An area devastated by a downed supply chain can affect many other areas where the weather is fine, due to the interconnectedness of supply chains. Consider this: according to the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico manufacturers nearly 10 percent of all drugs consumed by Americans.

"Given the large concentration of pharmaceutical manufacturing based in Puerto Rico, the destruction wrought by a Category 4 hurricane created shortages for specific medical products, which affected the standard of healthcare in the United States during an influenza epidemic throughout late 2017 and early 2018."


What’s more, in late 2018, snowstorms struck areas not known for large bouts of snow and ice. These unusual conditions affected truckers, distribution centers, and warehouses that never expected such foul weather. Many distribution centers and warehouses in mid-Atlantic and southern states experienced blockaded operations, as they are not only near major transportation arteries, but were also not prepared for such weather.


Two years ago, Fortune magazine wrote that a series of snowstorms that had hit the country in 2013 and into 2014 "helped the economy shrink by 2.1 percent in the first quarter of 2014. In that instance, the bad weather was persistent enough to mess with supply chains. Trucks and air freight couldn’t get to their destinations, mucking up inventory management. That led not only to fewer consumer purchases, but also to companies buying less than they otherwise would."


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Technology to the Rescue

With advancements in sensor technology, communication networks, and cloud-based digital platforms, much of the risk of adverse weather conditions can be better controlled. Artificial intelligence is permeating all types of technology, but for transportation it helps to instantly reroute cargo shipments when certain weather conditions are met or known roadways are closed or blocked.


Telematics are a boon to controlling shipments during times of natural disaster. Not only do they ensure that critical cargo such as pharmaceuticals are monitored for safe keeping, they can also provide better awareness of the risk of spoilage where any natural disaster occurs. In addition, better technology helps communication with transport workers such as drivers, warehouse workers, and distribution facility managers to deflect problems where possible to help preserve cargo integrity, and ultimately, on-time delivery.


While we may be experiencing an unwanted wave of weather problems, we're fortunate to be undergoing the introduction of digital technology into the supply and transportation arena. Besides being more widely adopted, it's also improving and enabling swift and smart decision-making before, during, and after a natural disaster to mitigate the risk that such events bring to the extended supply chain.


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