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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

After 2017's devastating Northern California wildfires, the Red Cross sought sifters -- the kind sometimes used to pan for gold -- to help people search for valuables in the ashes of their homes.

Members of Amazon's new disaster response team found the items in the commerce giant's vast inventory and expedited shipment.

"We were able overnight to schedule a truck, drive it up to Sonoma Valley, and they could distribute that as part of their cleanup kits," said Bettina Stix, who conceived of and now leads Disaster Relief by Amazon, an effort begun a few months before the fires.

The cost of floods, hurricanes and earthquakes increased some 600% between 1990 and 2015 by one estimate, and disaster response planners only see the pace accelerating with more frequent, severe and chaotic weather events driven by a warming climate. The resulting demand for disaster relief and recovery is growing, and corporations are playing a greater role with both financial and material support.

Amazon is drawing on the company's wide array of businesses, logistics operations, cloud computing resources and employee volunteers to help.

That might mean quickly beginning campaigns to collect cash or product donations; moving specific inventory items closer to an area threatened by a hurricane; establishing pop-up pickup locations adjacent to damaged or inaccessible areas after a disaster; helping local governments protect and restore damaged IT systems; and volunteering to staff virtual call centers providing information to victims and responders.

Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, senior director of U.S. emergencies for Save the Children, called corporate efforts by companies such as Amazon the "cornerstone" of support for her group and many other nonprofits. She said corporations have become increasingly important as federal emergency responders focus more on the immediate aftermath of a disaster and leave local communities to handle long-term recovery.

"As disasters continue to increase across the U.S., we're going to need more partners to really support community recovery," said De Marrais, a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national advisory council since 2014.

Apart from financial contributions, companies respond to disasters by temporarily adjusting their operations to provide needed materials and aid.

"Corporations have phenomenal supply chain systems," De Marrais said, adding, "They have access to stocks and supplies that few nonprofits could ever think of in volume and speed of delivery."

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.

"We're tapping into all these various sources within the company that are already looking at this type of information," said Trang-Thien Tran, principal product manager on the disaster relief team.

As a quick look at the GDACS reveals, there are disasters large and small constantly happening all over the world.

Amazon, large as it is, can't respond to all of them. The company evaluates and categorizes each disaster using an internal scoring system that includes the scale of the disaster, its potential impact on Amazon employees and customers where they work and live, and whether nonprofits have proactively sought support from the company for their response.

Amazon is focusing on natural disasters rather than slow-moving humanitarian crises that might have a political cause. Stix cited the "huge misery" of the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar and the civil war in Yemen, which UNICEF describes as the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.

"They still have a lot of needs, but we haven't really found a way of how we can help," she said.

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When the company does decide to respond, it aims to do so quickly.

The disaster relief team, now consisting of five employees, has established contacts in business units across the company who stand ready to make their specific contribution when the time comes. More than 800 employees in the company's retail and operations businesses have been involved -- employees doing their normal jobs, but now attuned to the special needs of disaster.

The company works with local authorities and disaster managers to ensure roads are passable and warehouses are open before sending in a truck- or planeload of relief supplies, such as water, snacks, canned food, personal hygiene items and cellphone charger cables. After Hurricane Harvey, Amazon coordinated with the Red Cross and the city of Houston to get a police escort to bring trailers of goods into the inundated city.

The company also deploys its massive inventory and logistics prowess to supply specific items needed by disaster responders and victims.

A few weeks after the 2017 Northern California wildfires, the vendor manager in charge of the gold-panning sifters put in an extra order to make sure they were available nearby as wildfires struck in Southern California, Stix said.

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."

(c)2019 The Seattle Times

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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