I've frequently said that there's really nothing new under the sun and that we can learn valuable emergency management lessons by studying history, particularly the history of crisis. We emergency managers often think almost exclusively in terms of natural disasters, a tendency that is probably as frustrating to our Homeland Security colleagues as is the perception that they think solely in terms of terrorism is to us. So we sometimes need to stretch ourselves when it comes to our research and not just look at historical natural disasters.
During the past week I've been following the operations in Haiti, as many of my friends and colleagues have been doing. Over the years, I've learned that most emergency management issues are logistical in nature - you have to identify what is needed, find it, and get it to the right people. We are certainly seeing this in Haiti, where logistics is hampered by the use of a single airport and limited infrastructure.
It occurred to me that we have faced this situation before, albeit in a very different environment, in Berlin in 1948-49. Following World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones and Berlin, which was about 100 miles within the Soviet Zone was divided into four sectors. After a series of escalating crisises, the Soviets halted all surface transport to Berlin in June 1948. Only two air corridors guaranteed by treaty remained. Some two million people were cut off with limited supplies.
The Allies responded by mounting the most ambitious airlift ever attempted. Berlin need some 1,534 tons of food daily, plus another 3,475 of coal and gasoline. This would increase by another 3,000 tons as winter approached. To meet this need, the Allies improvised a system that was delivering some 8,893 tons per day by April 1949, more than had previously been brought in by rail before the blockade. The system relied on a single point of control, maximized use of limited numbers of aircraft, and quick ground turnaround times.
Now clearly there are tremendous differences between Haiti in 2010 and Berlin in 1948. While Berlin still had significant damage from the war, it had been on the road to recovery for three years. Templehof airport was in much better shape than the one at Port au Prince. More importantly, for all their squabbles, the Allies were more cohesive and more hierarchical than the vast array of international aid groups trying to get into Haiti.
Still, much of what was done to streamline operations during the Berlin airlift might have helped the situation in Haiti. The airlift was run like a railroad, with a single point of control for determining flight schedules. Each aircraft got only one chance to land and were turned around if they missed it. Aircraft were limited to a specific type that could be loaded and unloaded quickly. Crew remained with the aircraft and took off as soon as it was unloaded. Supplies were consolidated and prioritized at staging areas. Heavy equipment was disassembled and flown into improve and build new airfields.
We have done this before. There is a lesson in the Berlin airlift that could help inform our planning for future catastrophes. We would be foolish not to add it to the lessons we're currently learning (or relearning?) in Haiti.