The Disaster Relief Network's Airport Emergency Team working at Sri Lanka's Bandaranaike International Airport is avoiding the logjams that have blocked relief distribution efforts after other disasters in the past.
Once invited in by the United Nations and the Sri Lankan government, one of the DRN's first moves was to meet with a contractor already on the ground working on the second phase of a development project at the airport. It was looking for ways to ramp-up cargo handling operations.

Contractors race to enlarge hard standing areas at cargo handling facility in Sri Lanka in anticipation of a flood of relief supplies. Nearly completed warehouse was rushed into service ahead of schedule. (Photo above and top left courtesy of Ritchie Stewart, Japan Airport Consultants and NIppon Koei JV)

Stewart Richie, a member of consulting engineers team on the airport project, a joint venture of Japan Airport Consultants Inc., and Nippon Koei, in an e-mail exchange, explains the airport's problem with handling mass amounts of aircraft and cargo. "There is a lack of apron space, therefore a serious need to unload aircraft quickly and clear the apron for more incoming flights," he says. The time required to directly transfer cargo to trucks, which were already in short supply, would compound the problem. "My immediate thoughts were to use the nearly completed cargo building as a holding center," Richie says. "We had a nearly complete cargo building capable of 100,000 tonnes per annum, sitting almost ready for use. "

The contractor for the cargo building MAGA Engineering (PTE) Ltd., a local Sri Lankan company, immediately started leveling ground to make a sub base for a short, but critical, access road to the building, and to prepare it for occupation. Meanwhile, a Japanese taxiway paving contractor, Taisei Mitsubishi Joint Venture, hustled to lay down pavement "so that the full taxiway could be reopened in anticipation of the amount of aircraft we knew would be coming," Ritchie says.

As soon as the sub base was prepared, it was paved as well. "We now have a very good temporary access road direct into the new cargo building, which from what I see has provided a very good solution for the team to get the cargo off, sorted and out again to those in need," Ritchie says.

Under the direction of the DRN team, 150 local volunteers processed more than 4 million lbs of relief supplies in the first three days. As of January 3, the airport had received over 100 relief cargo flights and 3000 tonnes of cargo.

Bob Bellhouse coordinates Disaster Relief Network efforts from his office at Parsons Brinkerhoff Construction Services, Inc., in New York City. Bellhouse, a PB senior vice president, also serves as executive director of the DRN. (Photo by Tom Sawyer for ENR)

According to Robert E. Bellhouse, a Parsons Brinckerhoff senior vice president based in New York, and the executive director of the DRN, the UN has asked the DNR to help at four other airfields as well, including the Bandar Acer provincial airport in Indonesia. It is less than 100 kilometers from the epicenter of the quake that triggered the tsunami. Bellhouse says the organization's fledgling emergency response program has pulled together a second airfield team and is taking on that project, but he is not sure it has the capacity to take on more operations.

Soon, however, he says the group hopes to pre-position more emergency response team at centers in Atlanta, Hong Kong, Mexico City and perhaps Northern Australia.
DRN developed the Airport Emergency Team concept following the Bam, Iran, earthquake of December 2003. At Bam, nearly 2000 flights with food, clothing, shelter, search and rescue, other forms of aid and media descended on a small regional airport accustomed to handling on five to six flights per day. With an inadequate infrastructure the airport was overwhelmed and had to be closed after four days due to insufficient resources to clear the freight. Instead of helping, the airport had become a "choke point" in the supply chain.

The DRN is posting reports on its work at effort in Southeast Asia. Contributions to the DRN Tsunami Relief Effort can be wire transferred to Disaster Resource Network in Geneva, number 0240-446640.01D and swift code UBSW CHZH 12A.