On October 10, 2022, 13 days after Hurricane Ian struck, Fort Myers Beach in Florida is still in a state of disarray. Photo/Jaime Puerta
Written by Adriana DiBenedetto
On September 28, 2022, Hurricane Ian crashed ashore along Florida’s Gulf Coast, bringing dangerous lashing winds, heavy rainfall, and thunderous ocean waves that fueled catastrophic storm surges – some areas even seeing 12–18 feet of storm surge inundation above ground level. As it continued to unfurl in some of the most severely impacted areas, Hurricane Ian was reported to have produced a 1-in-1,000-year rainfall event, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Witnessing the suffering in the aftermath, Tzu Chi volunteers rose to action without delay, mobilizing relief efforts, and launching an assessment of needs. Within one week, a team of volunteers from Tzu Chi USA Southern Region’s Miami Service Center began visiting areas impacted by Hurricane Ian in Florida, including Naples and Everglades City.
Community Partners Come Together
In Naples, floods inundated countless beloved homes, destroyed roofs, and knocked out power. While utility companies had been working around the clock ever since to restore electricity, getting reconnected wouldn’t be that simple for many residents.
Taking a disaster assessment team from Tzu Chi USA’s Miami Service Center through Naples and Everglades City, Collier County’s Growth Management Deputy Department Head, James French, explained the situation: “The water would wick up in the drywall, [so] we know it’s in the electrical panels. And so although services have been restored from the electrical utility and water and sewer utility, the problem is you can’t generate power within the home.”
Considering the challenges facing the families whose homes incurred damages, French pointed out their courageousness and solidarity, saying, “They are heavily impacted, but they’re really the backbone: The heart and soul that carry this community every day.” With much of the water having receded, community residents had begun the heartbreaking task of stacking their flood-damaged belongings out on the curb. In Everglades City, Tzu Chi relief volunteers found that one family slept on a wet mattress, in lieu of a shelter, because it was already at capacity.
Tzu Chi USA Southern Region Executive Director Sean Lo, volunteer Shuyi Bai, and Miami Service Center volunteers Mingzhe Lin, Changzhi Cai, and Judu Su, were soon joined by one of Tzu Chi’s collaborators in relief, Zack Stokes, the Regional Partnerships Manager of the American Red Cross, South Florida Region. Stokes and Tzu Chi volunteers had driven to Lee County, devastated by the hurricane, then headed west to Pine Island. It marked the first time the area had been opened to volunteers since the disaster, with the only bridge in or out destroyed in Ian’s wake.
When the car pulled into the streets of St. James City, the southernmost region of Pine Island, residents cleaning up their damaged homes became emotional when they noticed the volunteers’ presence. Their hearts were heavy as it was without having to recount the situation – survivors had worked hard for their entire lives, only to lose everything in an instant. Because of the severity of this disaster, several volunteers came to speak with survivors and document their immediate needs.
After sharing thoughts and plans at a distribution site set up by World Central Kitchen in Pine Island, Stokes led Tzu Chi volunteers to visit Bokeelia, a community in Lee County with a population of roughly 2,000. Homes were closer together here, and the damage was severe. Many people were engaged in cleanup, while more locals took a breather on porches momentarily, taking in the immensity of the task at hand. Stokes would continue to offer more disaster relief information in the coming days, while the Tzu Chi assessment team resumed their in-depth surveying process in preparation for following disaster relief operations.
While speaking with survivors who came to the Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) for information, the volunteers learned that the nearby Cape Coral neighborhood was badly hit. Many of the homes there were built in the 1970s, and the flooding caused by the hurricane had swamped the entire neighborhood. When the volunteers arrived, the roadside was littered with discarded items that the flooding had soaked through. Much of the initial cleanup effort for survivors’ homes seemed to have been completed, as several trucks now worked on repairing roofs and exteriors.
As volunteers approached Mark Mueller’s house, he invited them in to check out the home’s interior. Outside the house, there was a layer of mud left by the flood water. Inside, some items were nestled on top of closets and bookshelves in an effort to save them. He told volunteers that the neighborhood was alerted before the flooding, and local residents placed some of their belongings up as high as they could, taking shelter in advance.
What they needed at the moment, however, was to clean up and make repairs. Community members also expressed disappointment: With the increased severity and frequency of natural disasters, insurance premiums have become more and more expensive. Thus, many people in the neighborhood do not have insurance coverage, and they are worried about the cost of the upcoming restorations.
Assessment continued in Caloosa Mobile Home Community, a manufactured home community located in North Fort Myers, where many locals work at the nearby beaches. The hurricane not only battered the beach, but also cut off many residents’ sources of income. Among the organizations providing aid in the community was Samaritan’s Purse, which had been helping survivors repair their roofs. The organization’s representatives also graciously introduced Tzu Chi volunteers to a community leader named Angelica Ramon.
For the average person, grasping what a disaster does to a community can be difficult. But in Fort Myers’ Caloosa Mobile Home Community, Ramon shared that Hurricane Ian’s impact is evident in one of the most essential utilities of the modern home: A fridge. Despite levels of flooding that destroy most home appliances, Tzu Chi volunteers were not likely to find them among the debris out on the curb.
“You’re not going to see a lot of fridges, because people don’t want to throw it out, even though it’s damaged, because they don’t have money to buy [one],” Ramon explained. What people need most now are fundamentals like ovens, refrigerators, and toilets, she said. In addition, there were many school-age children in the neighborhood who are now in urgent need of learning tools.
For families that face the grueling path to recovery, explained Zack Stokes from the American Red Cross, providing them with financial assistance “is an extremely important part of [the aid] operation.” He further explained that “[it] can go towards home repair; it can go towards repairing their cars, many of which have been destroyed in the flood or wind; hotel rooms that they can go and get away while they’re cleaning up their homes.” These expenses are just to name a few.
Compassion and Relief Are Our Common Goals
As Hurricane Ian survivors arrived at the Lee County DRC, each had a story to tell. Molt came to the Tzu Chi table with a lady whose facial expression spoke volumes. While she filled out her data, Molt showed the volunteers a video a friend recorded of the hurricane-induced flood surge that furiously destroyed the neighborhood across the street from him. The flooding was like a wave, instantly inundating the whole area, with residents retreating to their roofs for safety if they could.
Molt sadly recounted that he lost five friends due to the hurricane. Before he could finish his account, his companion called out to him, scarcely having the emotional energy to finish her application. Molt completed the paperwork and then helped her stand up. With tears in their eyes as well, volunteers made a firm vow to give survivors real help.
As is true for all of Tzu Chi’s emergency relief missions, this disaster assessment and registration process required devoted and collective effort. As more Hurricane Ian survivors came to register or learn about possible aid, volunteers listened intently as they shared experiences, hugging each other as they parted, and expressing mutual gratitude and encouragement. Disasters have no mercy or compassion, but people do. All the organizations at the DRC worked shoulder to shoulder, their aim to help as much and as many as possible.
Aid Gets Underway
What had been one of Florida’s famous vacation destinations, an oceanfront paradise, was now in ruins. In some areas throughout the Fort Myers Beach community, only engineering crews were out and about, driving the streets as they formulated their repair and cleanup plans. Given the aftermath, the urgent need for timely disaster relief was evident.
To ensure that volunteers’ coming distributions would run as smoothly as possible, a team led by Tzu Chi USA Southern Region Executive Director Sean Lo had driven to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) Arcadia Child Development Center early in the morning. RCMA’s relationship with Tzu Chi began with Hurricane Irma in 2017 when Tzu Chi reached out to RCMA’s Corporations and Foundations Development Associate, Jay Robison.
RCMA’s care recipient families were affected to varying degrees by Hurricane Ian. Most families lost power, and food and water supplies also became a concern. To help households in need of support in the aftermath, RCMA developed a food and water supply plan for the next 12 weeks. In order to achieve this on a larger scale, Robison wrote to Tzu Chi, and volunteers responded immediately. After consulting with RCMA, it was unanimously decided to distribute their care in the DeSoto County area, which had experienced flood damage due to the hurricane.
At RCMA’s Arcadia Child Development Center, the assessment team was warmly received by Gloria Padilla, the Community Relations Manager, and staff members Hilaria Cuevas and Irma Chappa. Padilla has been working with RCMA for 14 years and believes that emergency cash cards from Tzu Chi USA will help buffer the small things so families can focus on the bigger ones:
Tiare Holman and Marisol Balderas, family support workers at the Arcadia Child Development Center, also invited the volunteers to visit their homes, which Hurricane Ian had impacted. With widespread damage done to many communities in Florida after Hurricane Ian, municipal resources are strapped, leaving many residents to fend for themselves. Balderas, an Arcadia resident, showed volunteers that the storm ripped off her home’s roof. Yet, she and her family still lived there, even days later. “There’s not a lot of places for people to stay,” she explained.
The Tzu Chi team also traveled around the neighborhood to further document the gravity of the disaster’s impact. As they passed by one house, a woman piled flood-damaged furniture outside, trying to arrange them in a neat and orderly manner. She greeted the volunteers, and after hearing the team’s intentions for the community, she invited them inside. As she walked, she lamented that it was once such a cozy house. Now, the floor and walls had all been torn down due to flooding from the hurricane.
As the volunteers were readying to leave, they noticed a sign that read “Home, Sweet Home” hanging by the entrance. “I put it up to remind myself to be hopeful, to stay happy,” the homeowner told volunteers.
Keeping Hope Alive on the Journey to Recovery
When Hurricane Ian survivors arrived at Tzu Chi’s cash card distribution on October 15, they didn’t quite know what to expect, or the depth of the care they would feel. The day’s first distribution had taken place in Arcadia, with another following in Fort Myers that afternoon. Both communities were hit hard by this calamity – and families are still recovering from the experience in many ways beyond the tangible. But by the time the event had ended, people felt better despite their trying situation.
In the first round of disaster aid, a total of 235 cash cards were distributed. Volunteers planned to continue holding relief events in Fort Myers every subsequent weekend through November.
The cash cards, a signature disaster relief item provided by Tzu Chi USA, are debit cards pre-loaded with funds for care recipients’ immediate use. During these two events, cash cards were valued at $800-$1,200 per household, depending on its size. This is a marked increase from many of Tzu Chi’s previous disaster relief distributions on account of inflation and rising costs, as well as the severity of the damage caused by Ian.
In addition to the cash cards, care recipients received warm eco-blankets made with DA.AI Technology, which recycles reclaimed plastic bottles into cozy fabric. And everyone had a chance to share their experiences through the hurricane and what life has been like since.
The relief effort in both cities proceeded in collaboration with multiple parties, including FEMA; the American Red Cross, South Florida Region; and the Boys and Girls Club of Lee County. It involved volunteers from the Tzu Chi USA Southern Region Office and the Miami and Orlando Service Centers. Days of assessments preceded disaster relief distributions and revealed current estimates that 80% of Fort Myers must be rebuilt entirely.
When Hurricane Ian survivors came to the distributions on October 15, they hardly knew what to expect. Relieved to receive financial assistance, they also felt touched by the distribution ceremony, the prayers, the singing, and how it all rekindled their hope. That’s the first reaction, but many also felt more:
On October 22–23, the loving support of volunteers brought some immediate and welcome relief to households affected by Hurricane Ian in Florida once more. Through two heartfelt distributions in the cities of Fort Myers and Naples, a total of $733,100 in cash card aid benefited 838 impacted households. Tzu Chi volunteers hosted another emergency financial aid distribution on October 29, 2022, and again on Sunday, October 30.
Describing his experience during Hurricane Ian, Fort Myers resident Vincen Williams recounted, “I was in the water for ten hours up to my neck, helping elderly people that couldn’t get out, with the alligators… everything was in the water, snakes.” After a harrowing rescue effort, reality hit: Vincen, like so many of his neighbors, had lost everything. But, on October 30, he received an emergency cash card from Tzu Chi in Fort Myers. With his young children in tow as he waited for his turn, he recalled his emotional response while watching Tzu Chi volunteers: “I kind of had a tear in my eye. I’m a kind of tough guy, but it kind of broke me down.”
Tzu Chi’s aid on October 30 at the Boys & Girls Club of Lee County in Fort Myers was the most extensive Hurricane Ian relief distribution thus far. Seventy-one volunteers from across the nation provided $523,900 in aid to 566 impacted households. With Halloween the next day, the volunteers decorated the venue with small ornaments to enkindle a warm and festive ambiance, offering sweets and games for little ones at the event to enjoy as well. As of November 5, 2022, a total of $2,227,400 in relief benefited 8,235 Hurricane Ian survivors.
After disasters, it can be a long road to recovery. As Floridians face the difficult task of rebuilding, Tzu Chi USA is here to help with continued aid for families and individuals in need. We pray that the relief Tzu Chi volunteers bring will help ease the distress of survivors as they persevere onward and ensure they know their Tzu Chi family is here for them.
Please join us, and let’s work together to create the better world for all that our hearts seek.