UI prof finds lessons in every disaster, including Maui

IOWA CITY — The responses to the fast-moving wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui are being carefully watched by a University of Iowa professor who studies disaster transportation logistics. Ann Campbell, a professor of management sciences in the UI’s Tippie College of Business, says there are lessons to be learned in every disaster that will help our leaders better plan to handle any future events.

“Wherever you have an island, of course there’s always a particular struggle of moving resources in,” Campbell says. “For example, when we have a disaster of any kind like a hurricane, on the East Coast or South, we have a lot of resources we can move in very quickly from locations like Atlanta and Little Rock, but it’s a little bit different in Maui.” The Hawaiian wildfires were a big surprise, she says, as there was no way to foresee such a disaster striking, so there were few resources placed nearby ahead of time.

Campbell says, “The biggest thing we can learn are sort of what are the things we’re going to need to do in advance and maybe identify some of the suppliers, the potential places to use for locations for, for example, housing supplies in advance so that you can go to Plan A, Plan B, if a particular disaster occurs.” When a tornado strikes in Iowa, the damage is typically limited to one area, so emergency responders and recovery supplies can move in from surrounding areas. She notes, most communities of any size have a disaster plan in place.

“If you have some base plans, that is really the key to getting moving quickly, and helping people quickly,” Campbell says, “because one of the things you always notice, when you see a disaster in the news, is the delays and the slowness and how frustrating that is, but the more kinds of things you have in place, the faster you can start helping people.”

The Hawaiian disaster strikes very close to home for Campbell. Fifteen years ago, she was married within four miles of the resort community of Lahaina, which was devastated by the fires. She and her family returned to Maui ten years ago and spent a good deal of time in Lahaina’s shops and restaurants, even taking photos beside the giant banyan tree.

“So, I have a very personal memory connection to all of those places,” Campbell says, “and it makes me very sad to see what happened to the town and the people there, but also very curious about what the recovery is going to look like and how it’s going to change that town going forward in the future.”

Campbell started studying disaster logistics after the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami in 2004 which killed hundreds of thousands of people. Her specialty is vehicle routing, using mathematical models and high-powered computing to develop quicker, more efficient ways of moving something from one place to another.