Small British aid group was quick on the scene in Tohoku disaster



While the March 11 natural disaster saw household names in the charity sector step forward, one relatively unknown and smaller British organization found its offerings very much in demand.

ShelterBox, set up by former search-and-rescue officer Tom Henderson, has provided aid and tents to about 1,600 families in the devastated Tohoku region.

The unique and simple idea, Henderson explains, is to give survivors everything they need to cope for up to six weeks in the form of a durable multiuse box.

Families opening their green boxes found a wood-burning stove, cooking equipment, a 10-person family tent, waterproof ground mats, blankets, a tool kit, warm hats and gloves, and a children’s activity pack.

Henderson established ShelterBox in 1999 after witnessing the “chaotic” and “undignified” way aid was being delivered, and within one hour came up with the simple idea of a box that could instantly provide the basics: shelter and warmth.

“We want to be on site within 24 hours, helping people in their greatest hour of need,” Henderson said in an interview. “Once they have been pulled out of the rubble, we want to say here is a tent. We live in the dark and dusty bit of a disaster. Normally we are leaving when others are arriving.”

Since it began, the charity has dispatched boxes to many disaster zones, including areas affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

He says that at the time of the Tohoku disaster, Japan was the best prepared country to cope with such an event.

However, the earthquake and tsunami were so powerful that local agencies were overwhelmed, he said.

Henderson was very impressed that while Japanese authorities recognized the need for overseas help, they demanded charities be “self-sustaining” and not add to the inevitable chaos that followed the disaster.

“That was very astute of Japan and I have not seen that anywhere else in the world,” he said, adding that in many disasters, governments aren’t in control of the situation and rely on a large charity to coordinate aid efforts.

But Henderson, who was overseeing operations at the group’s headquarters in Cornwall, England, says his team dispatching the boxes had some initial difficulty explaining the concept to Japanese authorities.

He puts this down to the fact that Japan doesn’t have a disaster relief culture, unlike many poorer countries situated in earthquake zones.

Once his team fully explained the idea, with the help of translators from local Rotary associations, they moved quickly into the disaster zone.

The organization had help from around 20 local Rotary groups to identify areas in need. It is believed some people are still living in the tents.

One of the main difficulties the ShelterBox teams faced was the lack of fuel.

“But our people found the Japanese very warm, resourceful and friendly and very community spirited. It was a joy to help,” he said.

Henderson thinks his overall operation was a “success” but feels some groundwork could have been laid beforehand.

“We should have been engaging with authorities in Japan before the disaster and say, ‘hopefully you won’t need us, but. . . .’ “

Henderson believes this preemptive move would have avoided the initial confusion about what ShelterBox does.

Henderson believes bigger aid organizations tend to be more bureaucratic and slower to act.

By contrast, because ShelterBox is much smaller, Henderson can organize operations quickly and achieve a “fleetness of foot.”