Japan’s earthquake was in some ways a triumph of preparedness: Thanks to strict building codes, not a single building in Tokyo collapsed. But the earthquake, and the tsunami it produced, have had impacts that go well beyond the immediate.
In particular, the damage is exposing the extent to which modern supply-chain management has produced a system that is so lean it lacks the reserve capacity needed to cope with disasters.
My wife takes a heart-rhythm drug called Tikosyn; if she misses a dose, she could die.
Walgreen’s doesn’t want to keep it in stock, so they order a bottle by air-freight when her prescription is about to expire. Normally, that’s fine — but if something happened to interrupt shipping, she’d be in trouble.
She keeps a backup supply, but what would Walgreen’s do for others in a similar predicament? A few days of shipping problems and many pharmacies would be out of important drugs.
Likewise, grocery stores now keep only a small supply of food on hand, depending on regular deliveries for restocking. When those deliveries are interrupted, shelves start to empty pretty fast. (And government emergency food stockpiles are nothing like they were in the Cold War era).
Power plants used to keep a 60-day supply of coal in stock. Now they typically keep only 30 days’ worth. That saves utilities money but it means that there’s less margin if deliveries get interrupted. In the past, severe blizzards have left some utilities dangerously close to running out. Most cities have only a few days’ worth of gasoline.
Something to think about and prepare for. If someone wanted to create a situation where our society would quickly devolve into chaotic self-interest and have Americans tearing at each other, these tight inventories would be the thing to disrupt. Talk about “remaking” America!
“Be prepared” never sounded like better advice. Read it all