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Amazon disaster response team aids recovery efforts from Houston to Indonesia

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Coca-Cola, for example, distributed water in Sri Lanka after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, and worked with the United Nations to rebuild local water systems. Home improvement warehouse stores Home Depot and Lowe's have had disaster response plans for nearly three decades, endeavoring to keep their stores open and supplied as long as possible in the face of oncoming storms, and reopen them quickly afterward to aid in recovery. Waffle House, the restaurant chain that prides itself on uninterrupted service, is well-regarded for its disaster planning and recovery, and the status of its operations has even been used as an informal metric for the severity of damage in a region after a disaster.

Amazon has provided aid and enabled donations on an ad hoc basis going back to at least the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but its more formalized efforts started in 2017, largely on the initiative of one long-serving employee.

Stix joined Amazon 20 years ago as an editor, posting snippets about books for sale on the then-nascent website. (She went to work at Amazon after being impressed with Jeff Bezos while interviewing him as a Seattle-based correspondent for a German radio station in the late 1990s.) Her career has included stints managing the introduction of new features in international markets, developing customer service policies and helping expand Amazon Prime, the company's core pay-ahead shipping and media subscription program, in international markets.

She realized the expanding scope of the erstwhile online bookseller could be harnessed for what she described as "a second return of investment" in responding to disasters.

The seed had been planted earlier. After the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster struck on Dec. 26, devastating a huge swath of the region and killing an estimated 228,000 people, Amazon employees joined the international outpouring of help. They used a feature of a defunct auction platform as a "click to donate" button, quickly working on the coding and financial routing to make sure funds pledged by Amazon users in several countries flowed properly to the Red Cross. More than $15 million was donated in about a week.

"That was a pretty good return of my work investment," said Stix, who helped set up the donations in Europe and Japan. The experience stayed with her.

 

Years later, looking to do more good with her life, Stix wrote a so-called "working-backwards document" -- an Amazon practice of starting a proposal for a new idea with the outcome, in the form of a news release and pages of explanatory questions and answers.

The proposal for what would become Disaster Relief by Amazon made its way to Dave Clark, senior vice president of operations, who needed no convincing and gave the go-ahead in September 2016, Stix said.

She began hiring and had a small team in place by spring of 2017. They set about responding to Hurricane Harvey that August, and have been refining their responses and increasing their capacity in the two years since.

Today, an on-call member of Amazon's disaster response team receives alerts from the Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS), a joint effort of the United Nations and European Commission, and news networks such as CNN and the BBC. They also monitor Amazon's own internal operations teams, which track weather impacts to the company's logistics and delivery systems, as well as a corporate global intelligence program.

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