Washington DC’s Emergency Food Supply Chain

Written by Resilient Cities Network
Monday, 12 December 2022

BACKGROUND

Communities across the United States and around the world depend on supply chains to deliver the commodities which are essential for daily life and survival. COVID-19 as well as other large scale natural and human-caused disasters taught us to expect continued future disruptions across multiple critical lifelines, especially food and water, from large scale events and compounding disasters. Recognizing the importance of these lifelines, and taking action to increase reliance to their disruption, has become a priority concern for the emergency preparedness community.

Beginning in February 2021, the District of Columbia in partnership with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments undertook an effort to understand how the Washington DC area could better address potential disruption of its food and water supply. Funded through the FEMA Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant Program, this project was designed to strengthen community and regional resilience across the National Capital Region by answering these key questions:

  • How do we get food and water on blue sky days?
  • What could happen to disrupt our access to food and water?
  • What do we need to do to strengthen our collective capability to deal with these disruptions?

WHAT WE DID

To answer these questions our project team did the following:

  • Mapped our supply chains – we recognized that building resilience of supply chains begins with understanding the characteristics and location of the key components of the system – where supply comes from, where the consumers are, and how it is delivered there. Using GIS mapping, the team provided a clear picture of the spatial relationships between the components of the food and water systems, enabling us to make informed judgements about the impact of distance between supply and demand on system resilience and about potential chokepoints which could increase disaster impacts.
  • Identified disruptive events and impacts – after action reports and lessons learned from past disasters around the country provided important insight into what supply impacts the Washington area could expect to experience if similar catastrophic events occurred here or elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region. Couple with descriptions of likely scenarios highlighted in our local and regional THIRA reports, this analysis provided a baseline understanding of what level of response would be needed during a disaster to help meet food and water needs.
  • Evaluate existing information sharing processes – real time access to information on disaster impacts and resource availability is key to any emergency response.  Recognizing the need for situational awareness across multiple jurisdictions and partners during a food or water emergency, the project team evaluated existing regional information sharing tools and identified opportunities to build off these efforts to make it easier to maintain and share timely information during the stress of disaster.
  • Recommended a strategic framework – using knowledge gained in our mapping and impact analysis, we then designed a guide for local emergency managers to enhance their existing capabilities to address food and water supply chain disruptions. The suggested strategies build on existing emergency management practices, lessons learned from previous disasters, and proven practices in both the public and private sectors. This framework is intended to be overlaid on existing jurisdictional plans and procedures to identify opportunities for enhancing resilience.

We did all this by examining our existing supply chains, consulting with other jurisdictions across the country doing similar work, talking with private sector entities who own and operate these systems, and engaging with all relevant stakeholders and partners across the region to understand what collective action is needed to address supply disruptions.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

This project has opened our collective eyes to the need for more robust preparation and response to a food and water disruption. Among the key lessons learned are these:

  • Understanding how these systems work is essential to evaluating resilience – mapping the food and water supply chains provided the basis for helping us know where vulnerabilities in the system exist. Without that awareness, our efforts to help ensure a resilient system would lack clear focus and direction, and not move the needle on resilience.
  • Meeting needs of our most vulnerable populations is our priority – we should already know where our community’s most vulnerable populations are, whether from socio-economic status, historical injustice, exposure to high hazard areas, or disability and access and functional needs. During emergencies, these individuals are among those most likely to suffer due to lack of resources or mobility options. In preparing for supply chain disruptions it is imperative that plans focus on ensuring availability of essential commodities to those who will in greatest need.
  • Restoring flow is the key to recovery – in the face of an ongoing emergency event where food and water supplies are disrupted, our immediate emergency response priority is to ensure affected persons have access to these critical commodities. However, our ultimate goal needs to be helping ensure that the flow of these commodities is restored so that the community can return to steady state as quickly as possible.
  • Partnerships are critical – because any disaster requires a whole of community response, partnerships between all who have a role in that response are vital to establish prior to an event. For food and water disruptions, this means building connections between emergency managers, private sector supply chain owners and operators, with NGOs who support feeding programs.
  • Regional cooperation is paramount – like many metropolitan areas, the National Capital Region is comprised of multiple state and local jurisdictions, each with unique leadership priorities, emergency management capabilities, and risk environments. Successfully responding to a disruption of food and water supplies will necessitate understanding the regional impacts of the disruption, and joint action on situational awareness, response actions, resource sharing, and public messaging.

GOING FORWARD

The next two years will be devoted to implementing the key results of this study. This will entail action at both individual jurisdictional and regional levels, and DC HSEMA will be partnering with the other NCR jurisdictions and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments to ensure we are building out this regional capability.  

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