Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the US state of Texas on 25th August 2017. The resulting toll on human lives and damage to properties even extended to the city of La Grange, which is situated over 70 miles away from Austin. Up to a quarter of the city (about 500 homes) sustained serious damage.
Due to the widespread damage incurred, the American Red Cross sought the assistance of Tzu Chi USA to help the storm victims. After an onsite visit to assess the disaster situation, Tzu Chi’s volunteer team discovered that the storm had badly impacted the low income communities, which were made up of mainly undocumented immigrants from Mexico, etc.
Many of the mobile homes that housed these people were washed away by flood waters, leaving only the flooring where these homes had originally stood. However, these stateless residents were unable to receive government aid. As such, Tzu Chi prioritised the first wave of relief distribution towards these needy displaced folks.
On 9th September 2017, a team of 50 volunteers from Tzu Chi’s office in Austin proceeded to La Grange’s Historic Casino Hall, to conduct a disaster relief distribution for hurricane survivors. The items distributed included cash cards, and blankets, as well as Tzu Chi’s bamboo coin banks.
Standing in Solidarity with Storm Survivors
Many of the aid recipients had reached the relief distribution site two and a half hours earlier, an evident sign that they were urgently in need of help. They queued up in neat rows and waited eagerly under the hot sun for their turn to receive the aid. Tzu Chi volunteers could be seen standing alongside the disaster survivors, greeting them politely and showing sincere care, while at the same time attempting to glean more information about their situation.
Some of the storm victims showed the volunteers photos of their homes that were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane. They narrated to the volunteers their ordeal on the day the storm struck — how their mobile homes were blown by powerful winds many streets away, and as a result, many of them were displaced and felt rather hopeless about their situations.
According to a municipal official, close to 100 households did not turn up to receive aid. This was because they had previously sacrificed personal leave to make repeated trips to seek help from other aid organisations, but ended up disappointed after being rejected by the latter. Thus they were afraid of being rejected by Tzu Chi, too.
Even the ones who came forward to receive aid also presented feelings of uneasiness that they might not receive aid. The volunteers were touched by the people’s concern and firmly reassured them: “It will be your turn soon!”
Serving as a Bridge Between Aid Recipients and Volunteers
There was an introduction segment before the start of the relief distribution, with Tzu Chi collegiate volunteers serving as Spanish translators for the mostly Spanish-speaking aid recipients. A local volunteer, Cheryl, availed herself to the task of using sign language to translate for six hearing-impaired beneficiaries, serving as an integral communication bridge between them and the Tzu Chi volunteers. She said she believed that everyone could lend a helping hand based on their individual strengths, and even if one’s effort might seem insignificant, it might be a great help to those in need.
The volunteers and Tzu Chi youths shared the story of Tzu Chi’s Bamboo Bank Era to encourage the storm victims, igniting their hope for the future and helping them to develop a positive attitude towards life. Many of the victims were so touched and inspired that they adopted a Tzu Chi bamboo coin bank on the spot, with the hope of saving up to help others in need, too.
A number of local volunteers took the initiative to engage in the work of Spanish translation, and this was a great help for the relief distribution work. Karina, who had come with her mother, a disaster victim herself, started helping with translation without any hesitation after she arrived and stayed throughout the event to serve.
“Everybody should seize the opportunity to serve, because we can never predict when we will need others’ help, too. I hope that my small effort will bring about a cycle of kindness,” she said.
Another volunteer, Kelly, helped with translation to show her appreciation for Tzu Chi’s aid for her parents, and even said that she would rally her friends to support the cause of the bamboo coin bank to pass the love forward.
Touched by Genuine Love and Care
A highlight of this relief distribution event was the great number of young people who served as volunteers. They made up about half of the volunteers. The youths partnered themselves with Tzu Chi volunteers at the information counter, helping with Spanish translation while assisting with the cash card distribution. The event not only touched the storm victims’ hearts, but also the hearts of the youths, who personally witnessed the teamwork and unity among volunteers, and how they cheered each other on.
Chen Jing Jie, a Tzu Chi collegiate volunteer and student from the University of Texas, said, “When the hurricane victims learned that what they have received was not only the cash value in the cash card that could help them financially, but also the collective love of people around the world (who had helped fundraise for the hurricane relief efforts), they were all very moved. And because many of them were still willing to help others despite being victims themselves, I’m inspired to do more to help them. As I’m not affected by the storm, I have a greater ability to help others.”
Helping to maintain orderliness at the relief distribution site was Mr Schmidt, a local police officer. After the relief distribution event had ended, Mr Schmidt commented to the volunteers that in his 45 years’ experience of being a law enforcer, he had never witnessed any group as unique as Tzu Chi. He expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the volunteers for helping the storm victims.
The relief distribution, which was held from 10am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon, benefitted some 186 households, who received much-needed aid to tide through the hard times in the aftermath of the hurricane disaster.
Bringing Relief to Distressed Hearts
Wharton City, which is located in the southwest of Houston, was one of the hardest hit areas. On 17th September 2017, Tzu Chi conducted a relief distribution at the local Wharton Civic Center. Some of the storm victims had started queuing up at the Center in the wee hours before dawn, huddling against the cold air as they eagerly waited for their aid.
Storm victim Lawrence and his younger sister had arrived at around 4am, which was still several hours from the start of the relief distribution. The hurricane destroyed Lawrence’s home, and the family had no choice but to seek shelter in a motel. Lawrence’s wife was still hospitalised after a heart surgery, and he himself was plagued by a number of illnesses, including asthma, hypertension, as well as a chronic respiratory tract disease. As a result, the family slid into dire financial straits.
Due to the floods, Lawrence’s symptoms had taken a turn for the worse. He had almost lost his voice, and had to take his inhaler after barely speaking, before he felt better. Earlier that day, he had gone to the Emergency Department to seek treatment, but because he did not want to miss Tzu Chi’s relief distribution, his doctor made special accommodations for him to be temporarily discharged from the hospital. He would go back to see the doctor again after collecting his aid.
In fact, this was not Lawrence’s first encounter with a flood disaster. In the previous year, 2016, his home was inundated by flood waters before. At that time, Tzu Chi gave him two blankets, and he still treasured the soft, grey blankets very much, and remembered the warmth and love from the volunteers.
When the time for relief distribution finally arrived, Lawrence poured out his woes to willing volunteers: “My home is utterly destroyed. Both my wife and I are sick, without any form of income. How shall we face the days ahead?” Hot tears brimmed his eyes even as he shared about his sufferings.
The volunteers understood the dilemma of the couple and were deeply moved by their plight. Through the personal review of Tzu Chi Houston’s CEO, Huang Ji En, it was decided that Lawrence would receive a higher amount of aid than the average beneficiary, to help this family tide through their difficulties. When Lawrence received his envelope containing the cash card, he quickly tore it open and was elated to find a cash card worth US$1,500. Partly out of shock and partly out of inexpressible joy, he choked back his tears and thanked the volunteers profusely.
In this relief distribution, Tzu Chi targeted close to 600 households in Wharton, totalling about 1,700 beneficiaries. Volunteers distributed cash cards according to the varied needs of each recipient in the hope of supporting the disaster victims through their pressing difficulties.
Timely and Direct Aid
Hurricane Harvey caused widespread damage and destruction across the Great Houston area, and Tzu Chi USA mobilised a large number of volunteers from various parts of the US to help with the relief efforts. From 9th September to 25th September 2017, the organisation held a total of 20 rounds of aid distribution in several hard hit areas within and around Greater Houston.
To help the hurricane victims recover from the disaster and rebuild their homes, the volunteers travelled to various affected communities to distribute aid, and also offered much needed emotional support to them. Despite the many challenges and difficulties they faced, the volunteers were undaunted in their efforts, hoping to warm the hearts of those dealing with the devastating impacts of the storm with practical help and support.
For updates, videos, photos, etc. on Tzu Chi’s Hurricane Harvey relief, please visit the following websites: