Amazon disaster response team aids recovery efforts from Houston to Indonesia

Benjamin Romano, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

De Marrais of Save the Children said this specificity is a "positive shift" in disaster donations. The American public is consistently generous and well-intentioned in providing aid, but not always helpful, she said, pointing to mounds of donated used clothing that were left piled up and moldering in parking lots after Hurricane Katrina. "That's not an effective way to support a recovery," she said.

Her group is among the charities and communities that have solicited donations through Amazon Wish Lists, which help "customize exactly what's needed at certain moments in recovery" and avoid clogging up supply routes into disaster areas with unnecessary items, she said. Amazon helps U.S. charities prepare and post the lists; the items requested can be donated by customers.

Amazon tunes its response based not only on needs but its own capabilities in a disaster-struck region.

After the 2018 Indonesian earthquake and tsunami, a nonprofit sought solar-powered lanterns, a product Amazon typically sells through the outdoor gear section of its website.

The disaster response team ordered the lanterns on Amazon and used its global business shipping service to send them to Indonesia and handle import fees and customs paperwork, which can be a hurdle for nonprofits.

Amazon doesn't do last-mile delivery in Indonesia, so it had the lanterns delivered to Team Rubicon UK, a group of military veteran volunteers, who distributed them to the people in need.

"Oftentimes, we're partnering with the nonprofits to be our last mile," Tran said.

The company also has established disaster relief "Go Teams" -- personnel trained and certified to work in or near disaster zones -- whose job is to return the normal rhythm of shipments to customers, often including first-responders, as soon as safely possible.

The company often must suspend customer package deliveries during hurricanes and other disasters, restarting them afterward with what it calls pop-up pickup locations, which it began testing last year.

Ash Brown led one of the first deployments of the service. Brown, based in Austin, Texas, works on Amazon's "Locker+" effort, a growing portfolio of locations where customers can pick up purchases and make returns. From his prior career -- 12 years in the U.S. Army, including as a special forces team leader -- Brown has expertise in search and rescue, and was eager to participate in the company's disaster relief work.


After Hurricane Florence, which drenched the Carolinas with record rains and damaging floods, he and a team of six employees brought a standard shipping container to a Whole Foods parking lot in Wilmington, N.C. They set up a tarp outside and a little table.

It was "a very bare-bones operation," said Brown. "We wanted to make sure that if we needed to move, that we could pack up very quickly and be mobile."

The location operated for about two weeks, receiving shipments each day and providing a pickup option for people who could not get packages at their usual addresses because of storm damage. Items donated to nonprofits were also distributed through the location.

Brown said he didn't anticipate this kind of work when he started his civilian career with such a big company. "For me, I'm both proud and humbled," he said.

Stix said work on the response team exposes members to the suffering and destruction faced by people around the world from disasters. But she knows their activities have an impact when she sees scenes like children receiving donated solar lanterns amid the post-earthquake devastation in Indonesia.

"The kid sitting (is) in a tent with a light and you think like, that is really something," she said. "It has a positive emotional effect on us."

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