Baltimore-based relief groups plan how to assist Japan

Donations to help those devastated by earthquake, tsunami

March 15, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

They're poised to help, but how?

The disaster relief agencies based in Baltimore, and those who donate to them, say they are ready to provide whatever assistance they can to the victims of the disaster in Japan. But for the moment, they are largely in a wait-and-see mode.

"There is a role for relief efforts, for sure," said Bill Canny, director of emergency operations for Catholic Relief Services, one of several relief agencies headquartered here. "But right now, they don't need a team flying in."

Unlike some recent disasters, the earthquake followed by a tsunami and a still-threatening nuclear reactor emergency have struck a developed country with a strong infrastructure — from a well-prepared and well-financed government and military to experienced and well-funded relief institutions such as the Japan Red Cross.

And yet, humanitarian groups say, the scale of the devastation, which has displaced more than a half-million Japanese from their homes, will undoubtedly require outside assistance.

"Their needs are catastrophic," said Tim McCully, vice president for international programs at Lutheran World Relief, which is also based in Baltimore. "That scale of a crisis is going to overwhelm anyone."

Donors have already started sending money to relief groups — CRS, for example, had already received $600,000 by Tuesday. The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimates that donors have given some $25 million to nonprofits to assist in Japan — substantially less than what was raised after other massive disasters, and perhaps reflecting the sense that the country is not as needy as others.

"People are showing, as usual, a generosity when they see so much damage and so many problems, even as they recognize that Japan is not an Aceh or a Haiti," Canny said, referring to the outpouring of donations relief groups received after the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien has directed churches in the Archdiocese of Baltimore to take a special collection at Masses for CRS efforts in Japan. CRS plans to funnel its donations to its partner, Caritas, which has locations throughout the country and has been working in shelters since the disaster struck.

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, meanwhile, reminded donors Tuesday to make sure they are giving to legitimate charities, not the scammers who often seek to capitalize on tragedy. Instead of clicking on a link in an e-mail, for example, people should type the name of the organization into a search engine to make sure they aren't giving their credit card number to a bogus group.

Other Baltimore-based aid groups say they, too, are working with local partners in Japan, which are assessing the situation on the ground and seeing what groups from outside the country might be able to provide. Getting help to the victims continues to be a problem, with an estimated 11,000 people stranded by the tsunami waters and parts of the country short of power and water, according to a report issued Tuesday by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

With many roads and rail lines damaged, supplies are being sent to the victims by sea and air, said Bruce McIndoe, president of the Annapolis-based iJET Intelligent Risk Systems. The firm assists multinational companies and non-governmental organizations in protecting and transporting their employees when natural disasters or political threats arise.

McIndoe declined to identify the relief organizations his company is assisting in Japan, but said they focus on a range of services, such as shelter, food and medical care. He said there were some delays in getting visas and other clearances to work in Japan, given the government's focus on rescue efforts, but the groups are starting to ramp up their efforts in the country.

"Japan likes to believe, as it should, that's it's very efficient, that it's well-versed in emergency response, but clearly, this is a huge undertaking for them," McIndoe said. "You have massive debris in the roads, rail lines are destroyed, there is no power in some areas, so potable water is an issue. It's a big mess."

Adding to the challenge, he said, is the threat of rising radiation levels from the damaged nuclear power plants. The Japanese government has established a 30-kilometer (19-mile) perimeter around the reactors within which officials are advising people to stay indoors.

Unlike the disasters in Haiti or Indonesia, when relief groups often rushed immediately to the affected area, the Baltimore-based organizations said they expect their services will be most valuable after the initial crisis has passed.

"In Japan, their local governments are still functioning, their medical system is functioning," said Courtney Ivaska, the interim disaster response director at World Relief in Baltimore. "Our role in Japan will be to work with local churches and organizations to help them respond. We see ourselves as a facilitator."

World Relief is working with evangelical churches in Japan to assess the needs of the victims, in both the short and long term, she said. After the tsunami in Indonesia, for example, World Relief helped build earthquake-proof housing and develop small businesses, Ivaska said.

Lutheran World Relief is also working with its church contacts in Japan and for now believes that supporting their efforts monetarily is the way to go. The group also stands ready to ship the quilts and medical and health kits that its supporters put together, should those prove necessary.

"And we're obviously asking our supporters to pray," McCully said.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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