Disaster Relief by Amazon, a Small Team with a Lot to Offer

Started two years ago, Disaster Relief by Amazon is a five-member team of Amazon product and program managers connecting with nonprofits worldwide and are ready to respond to requests for resources during a disaster.

by Jim McKay / June 28, 2019
August 29, 2017: A Texas National Guard helicopter hovers over head during rescue operations at Katy Grande Lakes during Hurricane Harvey in Houston, TX. AP/John Glaser

During Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. Coast Guard and others rescued scores of stranded residents from the flooded Houston area. The Coast Guard did so with the help of donated life vests from Amazon when the items were in low supply.

During the Camp Fire last year in Northern California, Amazon came through with a unique item for the victims of the fire, sending 500 Gold Rush Sifters — mini sieves — for victims to search the ashes for valuables.

Those are just a couple of the examples of how the Disaster Relief by Amazon team can quickly bring its considerable resources to bear during times of need. The team of five was assembled in 2017, although members are quick to point out that Amazon has a history of supporting communities during disasters.

But this team is focused on developing relationships with nonprofits like the American Red Cross and Feeding America among others and leveraging its supply chain to aid communities during disasters.

The team monitors potential situations around the world that could impact large populations and lead to disaster. The team will take requests from its partners on the ground in that area and provide the resources needed.

So far this year, the team has responded to the tsunami in Indonesia, the snowstorm in Seattle, the tornadoes in Alabama and Georgia, and the cyclone in Mozambique. The team shipped more than 29,000 Amazon and Whole Foods-donated relief items, such as hygiene supplies, towels, blankets and water to the flood victims in the Midwest.

 “For our activations we look at a number of factors. We pay attention to all the weather alerts around the world then assess if there is a large-scale impact, a large population and if it’s in an area where Amazon has customers and employees,” said Trang-Thien Tran, principal product manager on the disaster relief team.

The team will take requests from nonprofit partners in the area and go through its “playbooks,” where processes and product wish lists have been compiled. “That way, we have a readily available process that we can follow and get relief quickly to communities,” Tran said.
Team members rotate being on call on a weekly basis to monitor the weather alerts to look for potential activations.

The Amazon team can leverage its expertise in logistics and technology, such as cloud computing, mobilize volunteers, and quickly enable donations to partners through services like Amazon Pay and Wish Lists. The team can deploy a pop-up pickup location, where customers nearby can pick up their packages and as a location for supply and product distribution.

“When a disaster strikes, the incident involves all kinds of groups and we make sure that people know we’re there — from FEMA to the city and all the nonprofits,” said Bettina Stix, senior manager of disaster relief. “We participate in emergency calls and make sure we participate the best way we can.”

Of course, before a disaster strikes, the team will have participated in developing its playbooks and engaging partners who may be affected by a disaster. “With Hurricane Florence last year, even before the hurricane happened, we did a lot of preparation work,” Tran said. “It’s important in how we operate. We ask them beforehand, ‘What are the typical products you may need for support?’ so that we can take that information and work with our retail teams.”

Once on the ground during a disaster, Amazon deploys “go teams,” skilled, trained volunteers who have completed National Incident Management System training.

The team doesn’t force itself on communities that might need help but is there if needed. “With every disaster, everybody is getting involved because a large population is being impacted and we want to make sure we’re not harming the efforts of the nonprofits and the first responders on the ground,” Tran said.
 

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