Disaster Relief Blankets Keep Survivors Warm, Dry

A lightweight, non-woven blanket engineered by a South Carolina company is keeping disaster victims dry and warm from the Gulf Coast to the mountains of Pakistan to the tsunami-ravaged areas of Southeast Asia.

The blanket developed by the Polymer Group Inc. is warmer than traditional blankets woven of cotton or wool. One side is soft and provides comfort next to the body; the other has a backing to provide a barrier from moisture, dirt and debris.

Unlike other blankets, the "All Day, Every Day" blanket sheds water so it dries more quickly and needs less water to clean, an important feature in disaster areas.

"These people are typically out of their homes and are sitting on the ground in an open environment," said Cliff Bridges, a spokesman for the company's Chicopee division, which makes the blankets. "The last thing you want to do is wrap yourself in a product that is going to hold water because water is probably the biggest vector of bacteria and fungus, which can cause disease."

Polymer Group is among the world's largest manufacturers of non-woven materials used in everything from baby wipes to packaging materials.

It had about $850 million in sales last year, operates 21 plants in 10 countries and employs 3,200, according to the corporate Web site.

Polymer Group was developing a blanket for emergency medical use when Church World Service asked whether the company could develop a covering that could be used in disasters in tropical areas.

Polymer worked for several months with Church World Service, a relief ministry of 36 denominations, said Rick Augsburger, the agency's deputy director.

"We feel what we have come up with is an extremely useful and versatile blanket that provides great comfort to people who have lost everything," he said.

Over six decades, the agency has shipped millions of blankets to disaster areas worldwide where a simple blanket is important.

"It's protection," Augsburger said. "It's heat and warmth, and it's also a comfort."

Because Polymer's blanket is about a third the weight of a traditional wool blanket, relief agencies can ship more for the same cost.

The company was working on that blanket about the time of last year's massive tsunami, and thousands were shipped to Southeast Asia and again to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. The new coverings were distributed to people evacuated to the Astrodome in Houston.

The Polymer Group itself has donated tens of thousands of the blankets, which are not for sale to the general public.

"We're at the point now where we're trying to produce as much of this as we can," said James Schaeffer, the company's chief executive officer. "We would have donated more to Pakistan, but we didn't have more on hand. We shipped most to the tsunami and Katrina."

The company is developing a new blanket with a thin coating of aluminum applied to the backing.

The coating reflects the sun's ultraviolet rays, keeping disaster victims cooler in warm weather. Earthquake victims on a cold mountain side can reverse the blanket so the coating acts as an insulator, retaining body heat. A disposable heating pad can be used for more warmth, Bridges said.

Those blankets are not yet available, but next year Polymer will unveil them at trade shows in the United States and Europe. The company has not announced a price.

Schaeffer said the company is planning how many of the blankets it will produce next year. If next year is like this one, the demand will be high.

"It's been an unprecedented year of need," Bridges said.