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Santa Barbara humanitarian aid organizations respond to deadly East Africa cyclone

ShelterBox has sent response teams and material aid to support displaced people in Malawi.
ShelterBox USA
ShelterBox has sent response teams and material aid to support displaced people in Malawi.

A tropical cyclone is causing a major humanitarian disaster in much of East Africa right now. Two local nonprofits are responding with humanitarian aid.

Experts describe Cyclone Freddy as one of the most powerful and longest-lasting tropical storms in recorded history. It’s killed at least 1,000 people in the African nation of Malawi and displaced many more.

Two Santa-Barbara based humanitarian aid nonprofits are sending aid to the country. Kerri Murray is the president of Shelterbox USA, which sends aid workers to areas like Malawi experiencing disaster.

“These folks were already really vulnerable already," Murray said. "We had a lot of food security issues in the region and the worst part is that the cyclone hit a month before the harvest. So you have two million Farmers that lost their crops.”

Murray says the organization primarily sends boxes with shelter supplies — that’s what “ShelterBox” means — to repair damaged homes or create new temporary shelters. They send supplies that are unique to the disaster they’re responding to, which in Malawi’s case means things like mosquito nets, water filtration systems and solar lanterns.

Murray said this helps displaced families regain a sense of normalcy.

“If you're displaced, you're not working, your kids can't go to school, so the things that really help restore that sense of routine and really help empower families to get going again are the basic things," Murray said.

Direct Relief is another Santa Barbara-based aid organization responding to the crisis in Malawi. Like Shelterbox, they had aid pre-positioned in the area even before Cyclone Freddy hit.

Direct Relief
Direct Relief's Santa Barbara warehouse.

Chris Alleway, Direct Relief’s Emergency Response Manager, said one reason the organization has so much presence in the region is because tropical storms are happening more frequently there due to climate change. Cyclone Freddy is just the latest extreme weather event to hit East Africa, and won’t be the last.

“Every major study and most climate action groups can tell you that these types of events are going to continue and they're gonna continue in quantity year after year and become more extreme," Alleway said.

Direct Relief also responds to disasters in the U.S., including on the Central Coast. Their Santa Barbara warehouse became an evacuation center during this year’s storms, and they’ve responded to other local disasters like mudslides and fires.

Alleway said while extreme weather events are very different in California compared to East Africa, they’re likely both driven by climate change.

"We just want to make sure that we are prepared to respond to both in the same way and we provide the same level of support and care that we do around the world, here in our backyard," he said.

Both organizations are accepting donations as well as volunteers in their respective Santa Barbara headquarters.

ShelterBox’s website is shelterboxusa.org, and Direct Relief’s is directrelief.org.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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