Boxing Day Tsunami Remembered – The ShelterBox Response Team

ShelterBoxes arriving on Simeulue Island.

ShelterBoxes arriving on Simeulue Island.

Experience from our first few deployments had led us to start tailoring our aid. We saw it as an essential aspect to our growth as a charity, but we soon realised that as we began to respond to more disasters, ShelterBox as a charity had to do more. Towards the end of 2004, the idea of changing the dynamic of the charity and sending people out into the disaster zones had been floated amongst board members, but was not prioritised at the time. Then the Boxing Day Tsunami struck.

We had been inundated with support, media coverage and donations, so we began to send 200 boxes out at a time and decided that people were needed to go out with them to monitor and marshal the distribution of the millions of pounds worth of aid. Unlike other aid agencies, we had never before sent a team out to the disaster zone, but had relied on our Rotary contacts in the affected countries to distribute the aid on our behalf.

Having no official training in place, we called on members of the blue-light services to make our teams up. One such member was Steve Brown, a local firefighter. It was from Steve’s colleague Dave Pascoe that he heard about the call-to-arms ShelterBox had made.

The two of them, along with two other blue-light staff were called down to ShelterBox headquarters and were given their brief: ‘Get the aid out to as many people as possible!’ They then dashed around the South West equipping themselves as much as possible for the duration of their two-week deployment.

Steve said: ‘It was so we wouldn’t become a drain on the local resources.’

The team were conscious to be as self-sufficient as possible to not hinder the local communities trying to establish themselves after the disaster. The teams were named the 4Rs, a Rotary initiative that stood for Rotary, Reconnaissance, Repair and Recover. 

‘During the following four to five days, we literally spent the time packing as many boxes as possible whilst waiting for our flight out of Culdrose to Heathrow. This was arranged by the brand-new logistics team, consisting of grounded helicopter pilots from RNAS Culdrose. By early January we were out and on the ground in Sri Lanka.’

‘It was bizarre really when we landed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It was as if it was business as normal for the locals as they were hardly damaged at all. We had prepared ourselves to face destruction as soon as we landed, but we didn’t.

‘When we landed we were keen to get going and get the boxes out, but we had to wait to meet with our consignee, a tea-farmer, who was prepared to help distribute the boxes around the country. It was during this wait that we went for a walk along the beach and it was here that we saw the first signs of water damage.

‘We could see the difference in tide lines, a train line alongside the beach had been broken apart, and as we were going further up the coast, we finally saw the size of the destruction. It was like Armageddon!’

Another challenge we faced was the pitching of the tents. The team learnt that the families wanted the tents to be pitched on the foundations of their old homes. Steve tried explaining to the locals that the pegs wouldn’t go into the concrete foundations and tried to pitch them on the ground by the foundations instead. The locals went one step further and decided to collect as many rocks as possible to weigh the guide ropes and sides of the tents down whilst sitting on top of their foundations. In this instance, both the locals and the teams learnt how to cooperate together.

‘I will never forget the gratitude we were shown by the locals. Dave and I were pitching a tent for an extended family in the blistering heat. We looked up and saw one of the children climbing a tree and knocking two coconuts down for us. He then split them for us and gave them to us, before thinking of helping his extended family’s thirst. We were then presented with two intact coke cans that his father had produced, seemingly out of nowhere.’

Over time the 4Rs morphed into ShelterBox response teams (SRTs) as other NGOs in the field weren’t always aware of the Rotary connection to the charity. The SRTs became an established part of ShelterBox’s response, ready to face the next disaster, which happened later that year with Hurricane Katrina in America and an earthquake in the Kashmir region of Pakistan. In total ShelterBox sent out more than 22,000 boxes for the disasters in 2005, with the majority going towards Tsunami relief efforts.

It is for these reasons the tsunami changed us as a charity in our efforts to help better the lives of the victims. We established a logistics department to organize our aid and deployments. We started sending volunteers out to the disaster zone and we were able to meet the demands of aid relief for the survivors.

Our response teams assisted in distributing the aid and ensuring those families in desperate need received the tools in which to rebuild their lives with dignity whilst providing shelter to them. It is because of the efforts of all those who volunteered back when we desperately needed it that ShelterBox has become the charity we are today. And for that we thank you!


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