Charities Mobilize To Offer Japan Disaster Relief

The death toll from last week's massive earthquake and tsunami continues to rise. At least 3,600 people are now said to have died but that number is expected to rise above ten thousand. More than half a million others have been left homeless. As global relief efforts gather steam, donations to international charities are pouring in. To get a sense of donor contributions to relief charities and their emergency response, host Michel Martin speaks with the Mark Preslan, regional Director for Asia-Pacific, the Middle East and Europe at the American Red Cross.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Here with now to talk more about relief efforts and the public response is Mark Preslan. He's regional director for Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Europe in the international services department of the American Red Cross. Mark, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. MARK PRESLAN (Regional Director, American Red Cross): Glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you're coordinating relief efforts from the U.S., but could you just give us a sense of the scope of the need in Japan?

Mr. PRESLAN: Absolutely. Well, as you know, just from hearing all the news stories, it's huge. And unfortunately it's not unusual at this stage in a disaster, the assessments are still going on. The numbers are still coming in and of course the numbers of affected are going up every day. There are still an estimated 15,000 people who are yet to be accounted for and that's testament both to the difficulty of access, which includes both the fact that a lot of roads and bridges have been damaged, but also that aftershocks and tsunamis generated by them are ongoing. And some of those qualify as earthquakes in their own right if they weren't being compared to the earthquake on Friday.

MARTIN: I think what I hear you saying is you're really not even sure what everyone needs right now, what the immediate needs are - if it's heavy equipment, is it tents, is it food, is it - you're just not really quite sure what the total scope of it is?

Mr. PRESLAN: We are sure and we do know that the immediate needs are for the over 550,000 people who have been evacuated, most of whom are in shelters, currently over 2,000 shelters in and around the affected area - the needs immediately for those people, of course, are to take care of them, shelter, food and water, also medical care. And the Japanese Red Cross also provides what we call psycho-social service or emotional support, that there are medical teams with nurses who are trained to work with people in the shelters.

MARTIN: Now, the American Red Cross on Tuesday announced an initial contribution of $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross society, but you know, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which covers nonprofits and charitable giving, you know, they tell us that public donations have been slow compared to other disasters.

For instance, by this point following last year's earthquake in Haiti, more than $150 million had been pledged. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, donations at this point were more than 108 million. But so far nonprofit donations to this disaster numbers about 47 million. And I'm just wondering what you make of that.

Mr. PRESLAN: I think it's very hard to make direct comparisons between disasters on a number of fronts, both - I think it's difficult to compare directly levels of giving at particular points in time. I think it's also difficult to compare, in some aspects, needs. Although many of the needs are the same in disasters. The needs right now in Japan are similar to many of the needs immediately after Haiti. Search and rescue, shelter, food and water. Those are universal needs. And our experience is that the American Red Cross, that the American people have been very generous and are continuing to be, actually.

MARTIN: And the additional complicating factor here is that radiation levels in the region, there's a concern there about the safety of rescuers now and workers there now, as well as obviously the people who live in the area. Are there specific steps that you can take to assure the safety of your volunteers and workers there?

Mr. PRESLAN: It's a great question. It's obviously a major concern. The Japanese Red Cross, of course, is the lead for the Red Cross in the response in Japan. I know that they are adhering to the guidance from the government. Japan has a very robust disaster preparedness and disaster response system led by the government and of which the Japanese Red Cross is a part.

I think that of all the countries in the world, Japan is one of the most prepared for handling a situation like this, both in terms of protocols around a nuclear threat, as well as the systems for disaster response and relief.

MARTIN: And we were talking earlier with Paul Ogata, the comedian, who was part of fundraising efforts in Los Angeles yesterday about the psychological needs that people will have in the wake of a trauma like this. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mr. PRESLAN: Sure. You know, I think that's another universal need and it is a service that the Red Cross provides in a lot of countries. Here in America, the American Red Cross provides what we call disaster mental health. In Japan -Japan Red Cross refers to it as emotional assistance. In their case, they have teams of nurses, who as I mentioned before are trained to provide emotional support to people in shelters, in their homes who've been affected.

It is a need that you see after any major disaster like this, not surprisingly, unfortunately. And it's in recognition that need that field has really developed over the last 10 years or so, globally, I would say. And there's a body of technical work in terms of the best approaches to providing that kind of assistance.

MARTIN: And finally, before I let you go - and you may not view yourself as an expert on these matters - we are going to talk about this later in the program - there are ongoing crises around the world, right? There's a serious refugee issue building up on the Libyan border, which we will talk about, this ongoing issue in northeastern - in North Africa and the Middle East. The crisis in Haiti has not yet really fully been, you know, resolved. I just wanted to ask you, how would you recommend people to assess all this and how they should give at a time when there are so many needs? What do you tell people?

Mr. PRESLAN: I think that I would say that unfortunately there are huge needs all over the place. Many well publicized, many not. The needs are great nonetheless. I think that what we can take, one of the things we can take from Haiti and from the Indian Ocean tsunami before that is that there are of course the immediate relief needs and there are the ongoing recovery needs, which are huge.

They're huge in Haiti. They were huge after the Indian Ocean tsunami and they will be huge, obviously, in Japan, even though the assessments are ongoing. The needs are the same in all those situations.

MARTIN: And the needs continue and so that there will be many opportunities to help in the days ahead.

Mark Preslan is the regional director for Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Europe in the international services department of the American Red Cross. He's been coordinating relief in the aftermath of last week's earthquake and tsunami and he was kind enough to join us from his offices here in Washington.

Mark Preslan, thanks so much for taking the time at such a busy time.

Mr. PRESLAN: Thank you, Michel.

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