Preparedness by Design:

Tzu Chi’s Evolving Disaster Relief Materials and Methods

Written by Ida Eva Zielinska

Aiming to learn about the situation and offer her heartfelt care in person, Master Cheng Yen visits disaster areas, hospitals, and shelters in Hualien on the afternoon of April 3, 2024, following a magnitude 7.4 earthquake in Taiwan that morning. Photo/Tzu Chi Global Headquarters


While attending the “United in Service” 2024 National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) Conference, which took place from May 6 to 9 in Phoenix, Arizona, Tzu Chi USA Chief Executive Officer Debra Boudreaux aptly summarized the essence of the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s approach to disaster relief and continued improvements in its preparedness internationally.

For Tzu Chi, we really want to deliver it: ‘Serving with compassion.’ We try to share, ‘What is Buddhism in action?’ To become a global citizen, to contribute before disaster strikes, during disaster times, and after disasters, are we going to reflect? ‘How can we learn from the lesson?’ And then, ‘How can we be prepared?'

Master Cheng Yen founded Tzu Chi in Taiwan, where severe disasters do strike. The nation lies along the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” or Circum-Pacific Belt. Boundaries between tectonic plates and active volcanoes lie along its path, and 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur here. 

On September 21, 1999, a magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck Taiwan, killing more than 2,400 people, injuring at least 10,000, and causing the collapse of over 51,000 structures. The catastrophic event, known in Taiwan as the 921 Earthquake, marked the beginning of broad building code reforms and efforts to strengthen disaster preparedness and management practices. A magnitude 6.4 earthquake on February 6, 2016, and another of the same scale on the same date in 2018 led to additional building inspections, code updates, and improvements in disaster preparedness and response. 

Those efforts have paid off: When a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, the most powerful in 25 years, occurred on April 3, 2024, followed by over 300 aftershocks, most buildings withstood the strain, as less than 30 collapsed. And skilled search and rescue teams went out immediately. This time, while over 1,000 individuals were injured, Taiwan’s National Fire Agency told CNN on April 6 that the death toll was 13: the number of casualties far less than over 2,400 in 1999. 

Taiwan had learned from past earthquakes. Moreover, in addition to governmental action, civil society provided help in the aftermath of this most recent catastrophe, with charities and other groups rushing to disaster sites and shelters. Tzu Chi participated in this response, led by Master Cheng Yen, who released a letter of condolences addressed to the people of Taiwan, calling on everyone to join in solidarity and do their part.

A manifestation of the transience of life and the fragility of land, the sudden yet fierce shallow earthquake shocked everyone. In the face of climate change, global warming, and frequent disasters, it is even more critical for everyone to work together to overcome difficulties. We are all in the same global village.

Tzu Chi’s Disaster Response

The earthquake on April 3, 2024, struck at 7:58 AM, about 11 miles from Hualien on the island of Taiwan’s east coast. By 8:22 that morning, Tzu Chi had set up an Earthquake Disaster Response Center at the Jing Si Abode, the Foundation’s global headquarters in Hualien, where Master Cheng Yen resides. [In the Tzu Chi School of Buddhism and Jing Si Lineage established by Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the Chinese term Jing Si refers to the concept of “still thought,” a state of mental clarity and inner peace at heart. “Mindfully cultivating the field of our heart” is a core practice.]

Master Cheng Yen personally took charge of the relief mission, aiming to ascertain needs and instruct Tzu Chi volunteers on the launch of immediate aid. While the Disaster Response Center began receiving information about conditions and rescue operations in the city, the Jing Si Abode’s resident monastics prepared lunchboxes and hot meals for disaster survivors and rescue teams. Concurrently, volunteers organized goods such as eco-blankets, drinking water, energy drinks, and more, and with little delay, began distributing the supplies and meals in the city. They also assisted in emergency shelters, setting up Tzu Chi’s signature pop-up partition cubicles and multipurpose folding beds, providing eco-blankets and necessities, and offering moral support.

That afternoon, Master Cheng Yen visited earthquake-damaged areas to learn about the situation and convey her gratitude to those on the relief frontlines: police, firefighters, rescue workers, Tzu Chi volunteers, and members of other NGOs and groups. She also went to hospitals, schools, and other gathering points to express her concern and love personally. At the same time, Master Cheng Yen observed all the relief activities, always seeking to identify how Tzu Chi’s disaster relief materials and methods could evolve to serve needs more efficiently. She finally returned to the Jing Si Abode after dark. 

In the United States, ABC7 Bay Area News interviewed Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux about Tzu Chi’s ground operations in Taiwan. Boudreaux highlighted the importance of emotional support for disaster survivors, saying, “Mental health, the trauma, is so critical, so they need to have somebody to hold on to, to talk to.” While most Tzu Chi USA volunteers couldn’t be there themselves, their volunteer fellows and monastics from the Jing Si Abode were visiting shelters and homes and doing their best to calm people’s fears and distress after this catastrophe.

A Jing Si Dharma Lineage nun comforts a boy who arrived at a shelter in Hualien with his mother, hoping the eco-blankets they received will help him feel less forlorn since all of Tzu Chi’s aid is made possible by donations from strangers who care about the suffering of others. Photo/Tzu Chi Global Headquarters

Tzu Chi USA immediately launched a fundraising campaign. Thanks to the efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers and the recommendations of Tzu Chi as an organization to donate to from publications such as Cosmopolitan and Harper’s Bazaar, people responded with heart.

Today they’re suffering a disaster; tomorrow it could be us. We should help each other. We are one big family.

The fundraising campaign garnered $500,000 in matching funds from one donor. A Japanese restaurant business in California also gave $100,000 towards the mission: “Thirteen years ago, after the Great East Japan Earthquake, we got a lot of donations from people in Taiwan. When our company’s owner in Japan asked us if we wanted to help, every single staff member was like, ‘We want to be of any help we can,’” Daisuke Suzuki, Vice-President of Gyutan Tsukasa USA, Inc. said. By the time the campaign ended on April 30, Tzu Chi USA had raised $2.97 million.

People in different American cities respond with generosity and heart to Tzu Chi USA’s fundraising campaign for Taiwan earthquake relief. Photo/Tzu Chi USA

Going back to the hours immediately after the earthquake in Taiwan, it wasn’t long before Tzu Chi’s activities caught the attention of mainstream international media. Tzu Chi Charity Foundation Vice Chief Executive Officer Dr. Reysheng Her shared with CNN anchor Eleni Giokos how Tzu Chi had activated its disaster response within less than half an hour. In a New York Times feature article published on April 4, Tzu Chi volunteer Yuchi Huang explained that Tzu Chi’s methods and expertise had developed and improved with its growing disaster relief experience: “Now we’re more systematic.”

Meanwhile, the sight of Tzu Chi’s partition cubicles and furniture had become a recurring image in international news coverage, with reports pointing out the privacy and respect they offered the displaced during their stay in emergency shelters. In fact, the story behind their design and development illustrates Master Cheng Yen’s observant wisdom and the diligence of her disciples, their devotion steadfast for years, with products to prove it.

How Tzu Chi’s Innovative Shelter System Came to Be

While Master Cheng Yen has never ventured outside Taiwan for health reasons related to air travel, she has always astutely assessed disaster relief needs, striving to develop improvements in Tzu Chi’s response. She can personally do so in Taiwan, yet thanks to Tzu Chi’s extensive photographic and video documentation during aid missions worldwide, she can also be transported to disaster sites anywhere virtually.

In 2010, when severe flooding occurred in Pakistan, Master Cheng Yen saw Tzu Chi’s documentation of the situation in gravely affected areas, and she noticed a newborn child lying on the ground on a tarp after flood waters had destroyed the family’s home. Her heart cried out. Realizing something had to be done to help people enduring such harrowing post-disaster conditions, she reached out to those around her in Taiwan. Among them was Marshall Siao, an architect from the Philippines with a master’s degree in hospital building planning, who will soon obtain a Ph.D. in civil engineering.

Master mentioned to many of us, including me, to develop something like an elevated platform, or something like a bed, so it started from there.

Master Cheng Yen’s request marked the beginning of an evolving design journey for Siao, who leads the team at Jing Si 6R Technology: 6R refers to the standard 5Rs of waste reduction – Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, and Recycle – plus a sixth R, Research. The team first designed the Jing Si Multipurpose Folding Bed. The collapsible furniture item, made from recycled plastics, can be set up quickly without tools, positioned for sitting or sleeping, and easily transported.

The bed was first used in the field in 2014, during Tzu Chi’s disaster relief mission in the Philippines following devastating Typhoon Haiyan that destroyed many homes and all their contents. Tzu Chi provided financial aid for rebuilding and gave away the beds. The innovative bed won a Reddot Award for product design that same year, with the jury stating: “Flexibility in use and durability characterize the collapsible multipurpose folding bed – a piece of emergency furniture of high practical value.” The team then developed a table and chair, aiming to eventually create a complete furniture system.

All the furniture that we’re developing, they’re foldable. They’re flat-packed, so it’s easier to transport. You don't need a huge area for storage. And of course, you can use it over and over. And they’re all made from recycled plastic. So, there's no need to get the natural resources while you recover from plastic waste.

Next came a cabinet, “Now we call it the trolly cabinet. The idea came from Master Cheng Yen as well,” Siao said. Given that Tzu Chi provides a lot of relief supplies, she noticed that care recipients must carry the heavy load of goods they receive. “Master mentioned long ago, ‘Why not do something like a cart or a trolly? Because a trolly usually comes with wheels, right?’” Siao recounted. 

Therefore, the cabinet they went on to design incorporated this holistic view of needs. “It’s all very much interrelated,” Siao explained. Not only are the cabinets on wheels, allowing easy transport of relief goods, but they can later act as storage at home. Care recipients can stack them vertically or horizontally, and the cabinets can function as a closet, chest of drawers, or kitchen pantry.

The evolution in plans as to what to develop next continued, with Master Cheng Yen’s compassionate view at the helm. “After the 2018 earthquake in Taiwan. We provided so many Jing Si foldable beds,” Siao said. “Shelter was set up in one of the biggest indoor sports arenas in Hualien. All the displaced people stayed there, so Master mentioned to me that I have to go see if there’s anything that we can improve,” he continued. 

Siao did, taking photos and interviewing those at the shelter site, including military personnel involved in the relief effort and disaster survivors. He then reported back to Master Cheng Yen, whose conclusion was: “We have to improve privacy.” “Master instructed me to do something to give more dignity to the disaster relief recipient,” Siao remembers. One year later, the Jing Si 6R Technology team had developed a pop-up cubicle for indoor use that can accommodate a single or double bed. 

It is these cubicles that caught the attention of news media covering aid efforts in the aftermath of the April 2024 earthquake in Taiwan. “I think we can learn a lot from the media, because they actually interviewed many of the recipients, and we’ve learned that they’re so happy to have this kind of partition tent,” Siao remarked with gratitude. The value of the privacy offered extends to contexts few talk about, as Siao revealed: “One of the recipients mentioned that because they have to change diapers for grandparents, or things like that, it’s good to have a partition.”

The Jing Si 6R Technology team then developed a mosquito net for different-sized beds, and in 2024, Tzu Chi’s complete shelter system was ready. Each unit can be set up in a minute or less, making it extremely efficient during disaster relief missions.

We call it the ‘Tzu Chi One-Minute Indoor Shelter System:’ one single bed or double bed, table and chair, cabinets, and mosquito net. It took us a long time to develop a complete system. This is all based on the ideas of Master Cheng Yen of having a complete system with more privacy, more dignity, and more empowerment to disaster survivors.

Soon after, Siao traveled from Taiwan to the United States to introduce the Tzu Chi One-Minute Indoor Shelter System at three events, an opportunity for which he was grateful: “It’s very, very important for Tzu Chi to show everyone what we’re doing.”

Volunteers set up Tzu Chi’s pop-up cubicles and multipurpose folding beds inside an emergency shelter for those displaced by the April 2024 earthquake in Taiwan. Photo/Tzu Chi Global Headquarters

A World Premiere and Networking

On April 17, 2024, Marshall Siao presented the complete Tzu Chi One-Minute Indoor Shelter System for the first time globally at the Multi-Faith Leader Climate Resilience Roundtable event, co-hosted by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and held at FEMA headquarters in Washington, DC. Participants enthusiastically acknowledged the Tzu Chi system’s many benefits, from privacy support to its trolly cabinets and mosquito nets.

Anybody who’s been driven from their home and needs someplace to feel like they’re a human, this feels dignified compared to just sleeping on the ground, like throwing a blanket over yourself. It’s really, really, meaningful.

Storage is so needed during a disaster for people when they start sifting through or they go to a distribution site. They have nowhere to put it. So, having these rolling storage units is so useful.

Mosquitos are the deadliest animal on the planet. And so, to be able to provide mosquito nets to give people a restful night’s sleep where they don’t have fear of, you know, being bitten, or disease is pretty special.

Peers in the disaster relief space also saw Tzu Chi’s complete shelter system at the 2024 National VOAD (Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster) Conference in May. “Tzu Chi has been a member of National VOAD since 2000. So, every year, we come back to share with our partners around the United States,” Tzu Chi USA CEO Debra Boudreaux said. This year, Tzu Chi certainly had a remarkable offering to present, which could dramatically improve shelter systems following disasters. One attendee was particularly impressed with Tzu Chi’s multipurpose folding beds: 

It looks like something that could transform how we do mass care in the United States. The whole idea of using cots has always been troublesome. One, they’re hard to store. Two, you can’t clean them. And once you’ve used them in an operation, they become garbage. And it’s also made from recycled products, which means you’re not taking away anything from the environment.

The third event, Tzu Chi USA’s Family Safety Expo, hosted by the Northwest Region and held in San Jose on April 21, was more geared to the public and is part of initiatives to boost community disaster readiness in the United States. The Expo, attended by 475 people, was organized in partnership with Listos California, which, as summarized on its website, “engages a statewide network of community-based organizations, Tribal Governments, and Community Emergency Response Teams across the state to boost resiliency, provide accessible in-language information and advance a new culture of disaster preparedness.” [Read “Stronger Together: How A Collaborative Expo Gave Safety Center Stage,” and discover “Five Steps to Preparedness” on our Tzu Chi USA + Listos California webpage.]

The Road Ahead

Looking back on his stay in the United States, where he rubbed shoulders with governmental, non-governmental, and community organizations plus the public, Marshall Siao exclaimed: “The response to this complete system is very, very positive.” He was grateful for other reasons, too: “I’ve learned so many things from these three huge meetings.” His concluding hope was for collaboration and to provide all of Tzu Chi’s products in whatever capacity applies, and this can vary from offering them on loan or as a donation.

Marshall Siao explains the features of Tzu Chi’s trolly cabinets during the Multi-Faith Leader Climate Resilience Roundtable event at FEMA headquarters on April 17, 2024. Photo/Ting Fan

Regarding the partition cubicle, “There’s no practical reason to give it away to the recipient because I don’t think they would be able to accommodate it at home since it’s quite huge,” Siao said. In the United States, these cubicles are primarily used during medical outreach, providing privacy for patients while seeing a doctor.

As for the furniture, that depends. “In Taiwan, all the beds and furniture are the property of Tzu Chi. After the disaster, we can fold it and put it back in place because we can reuse it again,” Siao explained. During disaster relief missions in other countries, Tzu tends to give its beds and furniture away. “There are many different scenarios and situations,” he said. Tzu Chi USA has loaned its multipurpose folding beds to city fire departments for use by exhausted firefighters during California wildfire disaster relief missions, for instance.

Whatever the case, Tzu Chi can learn lessons that lead to improved disaster preparedness and response. During the 2024 earthquake, the Tzu Chi Taiwan team realized that if a disaster damages roads and compromises mass transportation, which happened this time, it will interfere with the movement of relief supplies and shelter furnishings to where they’re needed. “So we’ve learned something really important: that you have to put stock in different places to make sure it’s accessible during times of need,” Siao reported. 

The dedicated Tzu Chi team designing disaster relief materials continues to analyze and innovate, perpetually inspired and guided by Master Cheng Yen’s astute and heartfelt needs analysis. Moreover, what they develop at Tzu Chi’s global home base in Taiwan will soon benefit the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s activities internationally.

The holistic Tzu Chi disaster response system is genuinely grounded in compassion and Buddhist principles taught by Dharma Master Cheng Yen: Whatever future innovations emerge will stem from that. Photo/Tzu Chi Global Headquarters

For now, the complete shelter system Tzu Chi developed is for indoor use, so creating systems for outdoor use is imminent. Yet Master Cheng Yen is already thinking ahead. Observing that disaster survivors typically don’t bring anything when displaced, she envisions a trolly cabinet pre-filled with immediate necessities, such as toothbrushes and toothpaste, underwear and socks, etc. A mobile water purification system is also on the horizon.

Siao will now report to Master Cheng Yen about the innovations he heard about during the recent meetings he attended. “Someone developed using salt to provide electricity or lighting. I think that’s very interesting,” he marveled. Only time will tell what Master Cheng Yen chooses to green-light and what Tzu Chi will offer the international disaster relief community in years to come.

As for Marshall Siao, he acknowledges that all he has been describing is the hardware, the physical components that are integral to the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s disaster relief operations globally. “Of course, we have the software, like the volunteers. It’s a system, so in Tzu Chi, furniture is only one part, but it’s a complete system, including the volunteers, etc.” Tzu Chi’s software, or human resources system, comprises its volunteers, Jing Si Dharma Lineage monastics, and Dharma Master Cheng Yen herself, through whose compassion and enlightened view we can realize that whatever the heart envisions for the benefit of others is always possible.

Never lose courage. Never lose faith. Nothing in this world is impossible when you are determined.

Preparedness by Design:
Tzu Chi’s Evolving Disaster Relief Materials and Methods

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