Relief Group Provides Update On Japan

All Things Considered spoke with a relief agency operating in Japan called Shelter Box last week. Host Melissa Block checks in with Shelter Box and their international director, Lasse Petersen. Last week, his group was just starting to survey the extent of the damage. Now, they've distributed tents and supplies.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're going to check back now with one of the relief agencies operating in Japan. Shelter Box goes into disaster zones with tightly packed boxes of aid for displaced families. Each box includes survival gear - tools, a cook stove, blankets and a tent that fits up to 10 people.

We spoke with Shelter Box's international director, Lasse Petersen, several days after the earthquake and tsunami. Then his group was just starting to survey the extent of the damage. Well, today, he told us that now they've distributed hundreds of their shelter boxes and they're reaching families that aren't in the evacuation centers.

Mr. LASSE PETERSEN (International Director, Shelter Box): People whose houses have been destroyed or damaged but where there are neighbors that maybe have a house that's still sort of standing, they've got three, four families, sometimes 30 people crowded into a room. But they don't want to go to a remote evacuation center that's miles away from where they live, where their neighbors were and what's left of their land.

So, they tend not to be counted in the official statistics and that's when we're able to find that these people very much wanting a shelter solution where they can start to have their own space adjacent to where they want to rebuild or repair the homes that have been destroyed or damaged.

BLOCK: Would there be people, Mr. Petersen, who would say that it's better to have people living together in a shelter so that they can centralize distribution of food and their sanitation. That they may not be as inclined to have people living on their own in tents.

Mr. PETERSEN: I think it's always - there isn't a one size fits all. I mean, you know, where you've got the very vulnerable, the sick and the elderly, obviously a centralized location does make some of those things easier. But, again, you also have to consider that, people are in a shelter like that for a week, that's not so bad.

But when people are in there for weeks and weeks and, you know, that's likely to stretch out into months, then, you know, there are people who want to take their destiny into their own hands and who realize that they could be waiting a long time for government help.

BLOCK: There are a number of relief groups, Mr. Petersen, that have complained about the red tape that they've had to go through to try to get relief to some of these areas, that there are a lot of hurdles that they have to try to jump over. It sounds like you're trying to sort of bypass that, not work through the government, but do it on your own.

Mr. PETERSEN: The Japanese from the outset has said that international NGOs were welcome in Japan, provided they were autonomous and self-sufficient. They're not generally in the position to support NGOs who need help with fuel, help with translation, help with many other things.

I would certainly agree that some of those issues are challenging and it's taken us a little while to navigate some of those hurdles. But we're now finding that as authorities have dealt with the water and sanitation and the power, they are becoming, you know, more looking at the needs of the survivors and starting to come back to us.

BLOCK: Can you describe a bit what it's like when you hand a shelter box over to a family, what that exchange is like with them?

Mr. PETERSEN: You know, at times when you're out there distributing tents and boxes, you're talking to people about what the size of the family is and how many people are going to be living in a tent. It's difficult when you can see sometimes when that gets translated and tears well up in people's eyes because many of the recipients have lost family members. And, you know, it will take quite a long time, I would expect, that they will find many of the missing.

BLOCK: Lasse Petersen, the international director for the relief group Shelter Box, speaking with me from Morioka, Japan. Mr. Petersen, thanks very much.

Mr. PETERSEN: Thank you and thank you to you and your listeners.

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