A few words about disasters . . .
The best way to help the people in Japan is with cash.
Blankets, shoes, books, and other physical goods are counter-productive. Cash travels to the most effective place for the acquisition of the most needed materials, to be transported to the place of need.
I recommend donations to the Red Cross. They have a good track record, don’t have a high administration overhead, and are neutral in politics and religion.
Now, about local disasters . . . How can you help?
By volunteering and being trained now, before the disaster. There’s not much use for untrained “spontaneous” volunteers after a disaster. But there’s a great need for trained volunteers. The training isn’t hard. No matter what your everyday skills are, they can use you in a disaster. I’m a Red Cross volunteer, ready to use my skills in amateur radio to provide communications either locally or in any place where I’m needed. Working in a disaster zone requires all sorts of help – administration, logistics, driving, damage assessment, feeding, shelter operations, and IT operations. So even geeks have a place.
When it all goes wrong, you can be another mouth that needs feeding or sheltering, or you can have the skills it takes to help.
Call your local Red Cross chapter and ask about how to become a trained volunteer.