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After the earthquake, a brainstorm

Millions of Pakistanis are homeless as winter approaches. The United States has manufactured shelters. But how to get them from here to there?

Published November 8, 2005

[Thinking Outside]
They're durable and easy to transport. So, why not send manufactured sheds to Pakistan for emergency shelter?

[Getty Images]
Pakistani children stand outside their tent near Bana. Last month's earthquake has left millions homeless as winter approaches.

In Pakistan, the bitter winds of winter are beginning to barrel down the Himalayas, and 3-million people are homeless.

The Oct. 8 earthquake is a catastrophe so enormous it is difficult to grasp, even in this year of catastrophes. The death toll stands above 74,000, with entire villages wiped off the map.

The U.N.'s call to governments around the world to aid the survivors has fallen $415-million short.

But in New York and Tennessee, Texas and Washington state, people are doing something to help.

In an opinion column published in the New York Times on Oct. 31, Alexander Saunders suggested thinking outside the box - and the tent. With millions in need of shelter and no way to build enough houses before winter, why not send garden sheds?

"Such sheds - small (882 cubic feet), plastic, weather-tight, insulated and portable - retail for around $2,000. . . . Once delivered to Pakistan, the house kits could be carried in sections by the region's ubiquitous minitrucks, or even by backpackers or helicopters where mountain villages are inaccessible. . . .

"This is an opportunity for the United States to present to the world a product of our manufacturing delivered by our military might. The United States needs to regain credibility with its friends throughout the region, and the people there need housing desperately."

Speaking by phone from his home in Garrison, N.Y., Saunders says the response to the column has been "quite amazing.

"There are a lot of people who have been very creative with contacts and ideas."

By Monday, a week after the column was published, he and others had lined up more than 2,000 housing units ready to go to Pakistan, either donated by their manufacturers or purchased with donated funds.

The sticking point was that "delivered by military might" part of the idea, Saunders says. "We're disappointed that a week has gone by and we're still not assured of any access to any government support. We're still waiting for that magic moment when our State Department gets our military involved. "This is a true time-element situation. They get ferocious mountain weather in Pakistan, and when winter comes, it comes." Saunders runs a foundry in Garrison, and among his longtime customers is the family of Umar Ghuman, Pakistan's minister for foreign investments.

"I've made horse hardware for the family, you know, bits and stirrups, that kind of thing," Saunders says. He happened to be visiting Ghuman's father when he received an e-mail from his son about the urgent need for 200,000 units of housing for quake survivors.

"So I drew him a sketch of this thing," Saunders says.

He had seen garden sheds manufactured by Thinking Outside, a Detroit company, at his local Sam's Club a few months earlier. "I thought it was the most efficient example of small architecture I'd ever seen. I remember thinking you could house a family in that."

And so the column was born.

It wasn't Saunders' first wild idea. "I don't think it's fair to call me a gadfly, but I've been involved in a few things."

He was among the founders of Clearwater, an environmental organization devoted to protecting the Hudson River, and he is currently involved in an effort to create an underground mass transportation system around the northern perimeter of New York City. The earthquake column brought responses from people all over the country, Saunders says, including Kim Radpour of Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I read the (New York) Times every day," she says, "and I thought this was the most compelling idea." So she called Saunders and asked how she could help. "Being an activist sort of grass-roots person, I've been doing some serious networking," Radpour says. "I'm kind of a Spiderwoman. I'm calling all of my personal contacts and saying, "Who else can I call?"'

She has spent most of the last week on the phone, she says, talking to everyone from Sam's Club to a "friend of a friend of Oprah."

"I'm the mother of two kids under 4, so I'm doing this around a lot of other things. But it's just a wonderful example of what a few people can do."

Radpour has never been to Pakistan and has no personal connection to the region, but she did spend two years in the mid 1990s as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia.

That was one thing that compelled her to get involved. "Once you've experienced people in need and seen them as your true brothers in humanity, you can't ignore" a situation like the one in Pakistan, she says.

"They're not just people in magazines. They're family."

Another person involved in the relief effort is Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb to the summit of Mount Everest. Whittaker, who lives in Port Townsend, Wash., contacted a Seattle company, Alaska Structures, that manufactures housing for military and industrial uses.

"They donated $3-million in inventory," Saunders says, including a 40-bed hospital structure and about 150 residential dormitories.

Saunders has also secured about 2,000 of the Thinking Outside sheds that inspired the column, and the company can produce a couple of thousand more per week. Donors are lined up to pay for them as soon as transportation is available.

"We have production and inventory availability nailed down," he said. Getting them to the survivors is the problem.

Munum Naeem, executive director of Humanity First, says that when he heard about Saunders' "noble and urgent cause, we decided to do whatever it takes" to deliver the housing units.

Humanity First is a nonprofit, nonpolitical, nonreligious relief and development organization that provides medical and social services around the world. Founded in the United Kingdom 10 years ago, it now has all-volunteer branches in 19 countries and has provided relief this year for tsunami victims in Indonesia and Katrina refugees in Louisiana.

Naeem, who lives in Houston, says Humanity First has four camps in Pakistan, staffed with about 250 volunteers. "Every day when I call, I hear the frustration," he says, as workers wait for supplies.

He has chartered cargo flights lined up to move the housing units, and he even worked with an engineer to be sure they could be heated safely. Sealed, vented heaters will use fuel that is readily available locally, such as dried cow dung and charcoal.

The crucial element, though, is time. "Our fear is that casualties are going to multiply," Naeem says. "We shouldn't be worrying about the cost."

In his column, Saunders proposed that U.S. military planes could be used to transport the sheds. He has had promising conversations with officers in an Air National Guard unit in California, he says.

"The planes are capable and the colonels are ready, willing and able. But they can't give themselves a mission. They have to be sent on one."

Dealing with his own government has been among the most frustrating parts of the whole experience, Saunders says. "I'm still waiting for calls back from people in Washington. President Musharraf (of Pakistan) has been more flexible than my local senator.

"This is where the U.S. government needs to step up. We have C-130s gathering dust all over this country."

-- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or


If you would like to donate to aid for earthquake survivors in Pakistan, Alexander Saunders recommends the following organizations.

  • Humanity First:

  • International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies:

  • Doctors Without Borders:

    [Last modified November 7, 2005, 19:15:45]

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