Does it hurt to be prepared? Since we are in the supply chain business, the answer, of course, is “no.” But there is prepared, and then there is prepared . The Northeast is in prepared mode as Hurricane Irene starts its march up the East Coast.
In the interest of full disclosure, I live in New England, which is geographically weather-resistant. Until this year, we weren't bothered by earthquakes (that's the Left Coast's problem), tornadoes (Midwest), or, for the most part, hurricanes. By the time hurricanes hit the Northeast, they are usually a shadow of their former blustery selves.
In the past six months, we've dealt with all three of these natural occurrences.
We do get Nor'easters, nasty winter storms typified by lots of snow and high winds. They've been around since before Plimoth Plantation was settled, but I don't think they were really a problem (compared with, say, disease) until people began leaving their snug little cabins and commuting in cars to electric-powered office buildings.
The blizzard of '78 (which in Boston is always THE BLIZZARD OF ’78!!!) was a disaster. People abandoned cars after they got stuck on highways and ran out of gas. Power was out for weeks. Fireplaces, a standard feature in most snug little New England cabins, weren't stocked, or the user manuals were misplaced. (“I have to open what?! The flu?!”) As a result, the “hardy New England stock” has become a regionful of wimps who scurry to the store at the hint of a snowflake. (OK, not Maine — they still tough it out.)
Hurricane Irene has been topping the news cycle for days. It's not supposed to reach us until Sunday, but news coverage here began Monday. Here's how the supply chain here works: Shipments of milk, water, and maybe generators have been stepped up, although suppliers would be better served to ship them south. Supply will keep up with demand until Saturday, when procrastinators such as myself finally get to the grocery stores. After the storm passes, excess inventory will go on sale. And if electricity goes, a lot of stuff will spoil.
By the time I reach the store, milk and water will be completely gone. Generators (a winter thing) may or may not be in stock, although Christmas ornaments are already on display. (Thank goodness for that!) All I really need are matches, candles, and batteries. Boiled water? No problem. Paperback books? Check. Food? Eat it before it melts. We'll survive.
There have been several instances over the past few years when people in the Western US have mocked us for overreacting to some kind of weather-related event. The state of Massachusetts once shut down under predictions of a Nor'easter that never happened, and my editor-in-chief at the time in California wanted to declare a heightened UV day as an excuse to shut down the offices there. A colleague in Phoenix recently bemoaned that the recent dust storm occurred too late to be of any use — it hit around 5 p.m. in Arizona. As for this week's earthquake, California's having a well deserved laugh at our expense.
I know this stuff can be serious business. Japan and Katrina are not forgotten. These are two examples where being prepared could have mitigated damage, although I don't know what you can do to prepare for the type of disaster we saw this year in Japan. Were it to happen on the East Coast, evacuating Boston would be a ridiculous idea. Our highway system can't handle commuting traffic, and I believe the same is true for a lot of coastal cities. That doesn't mean you don't try, though.
The point is that just-in-time doesn't work in this case. That system depends on the synchronization of transit systems (which have already been disrupted as airports begin to close) and having the right mix of inventory in the right places. Railways are shutting down, and trucking takes too long for the perishables, but we do have those Christmas ornaments (and, now that I think about it, Halloween candy). So having a little extra inventory on hand makes sense, much as the electronics industry learned after the quake in Japan. Sure, it's an expense. But it doesn't hurt to be prepared.
I'm hitting the store today. C'mon, Irene.