2017 would prove to be a challenging year for many people around the globe. Extreme weather brought an onslaught of hurricanes racing in from across the Atlantic, and a fierce wildfire season raged on the American West Coast. Torrential rain led to severe and deadly flooding in many parts of the world, and a massive earthquake rattled Mexico, causing widespread destruction. At the same time, people still struggling to recover from past disasters were enduring the relentless hardship of poverty and hunger.
The amount of emergency as well as long-term disaster aid Tzu Chi Relief would go on to provide in 2017 was unprecedented. We are deeply grateful we could answer the call of those in need in the U.S. and internationally, bringing relief with compassion and care. In each case, our spirit of universal love came with us, bringing people together and sparking the light of hope.
Looking back, our first calls to action came in February, from two different states in the U.S., less than two days apart …
Tornado Relief in San Antonio, Texas
The roar woke the families up, but there was no escape from the wrath of the tornadoes that descended on San Antonio, Texas, in the middle of the night on Sunday, February 19. The ferocious wind ripped the roofs off of houses and caused tremendous damage in seconds.
“I heard my wife yelling, a tornado, a tornado. Maybe two seconds, my whole roof disappeared on me.”
Adrian Venegas, Aid Recipient
Four separate tornadoes had torn through the city that night, smashing over 100 homes to bits. After surveying the devastation in the area, by the end of the next day, Mayor Ivy Taylor issued a disaster declaration for San Antonio.
“So many great people are here giving assistance and helping out. We are blessed and we are thankful for everything, for everyone’s help.”
Rene Cardenes, Aid Recipient
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in California, San Jose residents were equally in shock …
Flood Relief in the Silicon Valley
After years of drought in California, the rain that finally came descended with such ferocity that it led to the worst flooding to hit the Silicon Valley in a hundred years. Days of relentless downpour caused Anderson Lake to overflow, and on February 21, rapid flooding forced over 14,000 people in San Jose to evacuate with haste, caught completely off guard.
“That was the scariest day of my life. I lost everything. Now I’m looking for a place to live which is not easy.”
Daisy Vasquez, Aid Recipient
We then quickly organized and provided several distributions of cash cards, providing a total of $145,100 in financial aid that would help 1,750 individuals impacted by the flooding begin to recover.
“I think what you guys do for the community, how you guys step up … is very, very nice. You just jump right in. It leads to support. It leads to a hand. With no reservation. It’s a big thing.”
Anthony, Aid Recipient
What happened in San Jose shows just how unpredictable catastrophes can be. Watch our full Tzu Chi News coverage of this mission.
Meanwhile, people in Ecuador were soon to face an unexpected disaster as well, and we were there to help …
Continuing Disaster Aid in Ecuador
Our long-term earthquake relief in Ecuador began in March, with a groundbreaking ceremony for the rebuilding of a Catholic church in Canoa, one of the towns severely damaged in 2016.
This initiative will offer jobs and spark a spirit of solidarity as people work together to rebuild a place that is central to their lives, where they can assemble, find peace, and seek spiritual support from the nuns.
As our volunteers also checked in on our friends in many of the cities where our Cash-For-Relief program helped restore hope in 2016, another disaster struck many of the same communities.
Heavy rain led to severe flooding in April, causing tremendous additional hardship for families that are still struggling since the earthquake. Once the water receded, their homes, schools, and streets were left covered in sludge and inches of thick mud. The amount of work that lay ahead was heartbreaking and everyone felt deeply discouraged.
Since people already knew the power and benefits of the Cash-For-Relief program, our volunteers converged in Ecuador and we quickly reinstated it. Soon, people joined together to clean up, jump-starting the recovery process and their faith in the future.
“Sincerely, from the deepest part of my heart, I speak on behalf of all Ecuadorian people. We thank you. We are so sincerely grateful for all of your help. We love you.”
Cash-For-Relief Program Participant
We will provide aid in Ecuador for as long as need be, having created a lasting connection as one family. This is also the case in Haiti, where our aid began nearly 20 years ago and continues ...
Long-Term Disaster Relief in Haiti
We first mobilized disaster relief for Haiti after Hurricane Georges in 1998 and the people have remained in our hearts since then, so we always keep a watch for when they might need a boost of humanitarian aid. We were there after the tragic earthquake in 2010, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and Hurricane Matthew which hit the island in October of 2016. The impact of Hurricane Matthew lingers until today, as many lost their homes and their only source of income at the time and haven’t recovered since then.
Our long-term disaster aid in Haiti in 2017 focused on the persistent demand for food, particularly in rural areas where the damage from Hurricane Matthew heavily impacted agriculture.
“After Hurricane Matthew, we lived in misery. This is the most fortunate thing to happen since then.”
In total, we distributed 900 tons of rice (90,000 bags, each weighing 20 pounds), benefitting 118,103 households (286,500 individuals).
We sometimes face unforeseen challenges in Haiti, but our commitment to provide humanitarian aid can’t be broken.
And, with the help of dedicated local volunteers, love will always find a way to transcend every obstacle, bringing relief to the citizens of this long-suffering nation.
“It warms my heart. It feels like I’m helping my parents, my daughter, my wife or my brother ... I help them with all my heart just as if they were my family.”
Jean Louis Bazar, Local Tzu Chi Volunteer
Meanwhile, back in the United States, some communities in Michigan were in for a shock …
Flood Relief in Michigan
Relentless torrential rain near the end of June left much of Midland and Isabelle Counties in Michigan completely inundated by June 24, their residents forced to evacuate.
With 90 highways closed at that time, our volunteers had to be patient despite their heartfelt urge to bring immediate help.
As soon as the highways reopened, they began their disaster assessment in severely hit areas and mobilized a relief distribution for the families most in need.
We helped 72 families come to terms with their great loss and the uncertainty that lay ahead, the aid lifting their spirits with much-needed comfort.
“It’s easier to believe we’re all one family… I’m not feeling sorry for myself; I’m feeling grateful for everyone here giving so freely. It’s not the gifts, it’s the spirit.”
Ted Kudich, Aid Recipient
Not long after, we were called to action after a raging wildfire in California …
Wildfire Relief in Santa Barbara, California
On July 8, an explosive wildfire sparked in Los Padres National Forest in Santa Barbara County, California, and forced the evacuation of 2,700 residents in the area.
“The ashes were coming, and they were falling like rain.”
One particular community was completely destroyed, the flames consuming their homes within minutes.
“Where I live, my home, totally destroyed. Almost everyone else’s home, a lot of people live on the site.”
Ben Spring, Aid Recipient
Our volunteers in California organized quickly and set out to reach the area. After a disaster assessment in collaboration with the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, they hosted a distribution, providing cash cards, blankets, and other essentials.
The moral support we had also come to offer was equally important to the people we met.
“I can’t believe you guys drove all this way to help us out.”
Knowing someone cared made a world of difference to these individuals who must now start over from scratch. Whatever the size of the mission, each is an opportunity to offer our love and care, cherishing every person we help as a family member.
And yet, no one could have predicted that we would soon undertake our biggest disaster relief mission to date, as hurricane season storms gathered strength over the Atlantic …
Hurricane Harvey Disaster Relief
Hurricane Harvey made landfall near the Texas Gulf Coast on August 25. The Category 4 hurricane stalled briefly, then moved east as a tropical storm, making its final landfall in Louisiana on August 30. It was those five days of slow movement and relentless rain that caused catastrophic flooding in Texas, predominantly in the greater Houston area where an entire year’s worth of rain fell within less than a week.
We began mobilizing aid immediately, while the storm was still wreaking havoc. The mission that followed would span several weeks, and emerge as a milestone for Tzu Chi Relief since we went on to provide an unprecedented $7,010,700 in disaster aid.
We began with a disaster assessment in the hardest-hit areas, where the material lives people had built up over a long time had been demolished by flood water in what seemed like an instant.
“The water came up so high until it just took every house, just about in our neighborhood. We have put everything, just about outside on the road. That’s where you’ll find my whole earnings, out on the side of the street.”
Alice Savoy, Aid Recipient
As always, our volunteers made every effort to reach communities that had not received any aid, so that no one would be left behind. A total of 1,500 volunteers from around the world were part of this mission, feeling heartfelt solidarity with those suffering in the aftermath of one of the worst weather disasters in U.S. history, the cost of damages estimated to be as high as $180 billion.
The financial assistance we provided benefitted 12,095 families, comprising 35,267 Texas residents. Each individual we met left an imprint in our hearts, and the connection was mutual as we discovered from unexpected gestures of appreciation: The Mayor of Dickinson declared September “Tzu Chi Month” in the city and the Mayor of Port Arthur named October 6 “Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation Day.”
"Transforming despair into hope and alleviating suffering is at the core of our disaster relief work, and we were grateful to see how this spirit resonated during our distributions in Texas."
Dr. Mark Porterie, Superintendent of Schools
Port Arthur Independent School District
Tzu Chi News followed the entire Hurricane Harvey mission. Watch the video series.
Halfway around the world, August 2017 had also been a tragic month in Sierra Leone, where days before Harvey made landfall in Texas, a deadly mudslide occurred ...
Humanitarian Aid in Sierra Leone
An extremely wet rainy season, with nearly triple the average rainfall descending in the Western part of Sierra Leone, unleashed a tragedy on August 14, the horror of which would reverberate around the world. After three days of intense rain, a deadly mudslide tore down a crowded hillside in Regent, a town on the outskirts of Freetown, the nation’s capital.
Over 400 people were said to have lost their lives due to this flood-related disaster, but lacking proper records and given the stark reality that many bodies may never be found, the number of victims could actually be more than a 1,000.
Our humanitarian aid in Sierra Leone began post-Ebola: We were the first NGO to offer assistance to all Ebola survivors in the country, providing food staples and items such as shoes and beds. Our volunteers converged in Sierra Leone soon after the mudslide, to stand side-by-side with survivors, helping them bear the weight of their grief.
They then traveled to one of the five tent communities where mudslide and flood survivors had found shelter. We offered meals and paid particular attention to the needs of the children, some of whom are now orphans. Keeping their faith in the future alive is a concern of all the NGOs who come to offer aid here.
Working in collaboration with local partners, our humanitarian assistance in Sierra Leone is reaching hunger-prone rural areas, vulnerable communities, orphanages, and other charity institutions.
While our long-term aid in Africa was continuing, disaster struck on another continent in September, in South America …
Mexico Earthquake Disaster Relief
On September 19, thousands of Mexicans were commemorating the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake that left 10,000 dead and 30,000 injured. As they were collectively remembering that tragic event, a massive magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck, rattling the nerves of the nation.
Over 300 people lost their lives as a result of the earthquake, which caused extensive damage in the Greater Mexico City area and the states of Puebla and Morelos. Our volunteers mobilized swiftly to bring their love to Mexico and began an extended and thorough disaster assessment in the hardest-hit areas.
“This disaster has been very devastating. It’s a very large disaster zone which we’re completely unfamiliar with.”
Stephen Huang, Executive Director of Global Tzu Chi Volunteers
What soon made this mission particularly remarkable was the level of community support we were able to garner, training teams to work closely with us.
“You come from the other side of the world. So, I also have that moral commitment with you. I wanted to come.”
Trinidad Jardines, Local Tzu Chi volunteer
The participation of our local volunteers made a world of difference in the accuracy of our roster of those impacted by the earthquake and in need of help.
After weeks of careful assessment, our teams going door-to-door in each community, when our large-scale disaster relief distributions finally began in December, thousands would attend and receive aid.
Tzu Chi volunteers from 17 different countries came to serve here, at their own cost. Their diligence and dedication made everything run smoothly, creating an uplifting experience for the thousands of Mexican people who had been through so much pain since the earthquake.
Our financial aid was of direct benefit to 10,355 households, and now these families can purchase rebuilding supplies or whatever they need to move forward and recover. The 11,151 eco-friendly blankets we distributed also offered warmth and comfort to families living under difficult conditions since the earthquake.
What made our disaster relief in Mexico even more powerful, was the medical outreach we were able to offer alongside our distributions. A total of 4,491 people received free medical, dental, and acupuncture services, some seeing a doctor for the very first time in their lives.
The scale of our medical outreach in Mexico would mark a milestone in our international disaster relief history.
As in other countries where we’ve served, this mission created a lasting impression in the hearts of everyone we met and our volunteers.
“I learned something very important: Love… The love that they came to share with us. That we are not alone, that there is always someone close who loves and cares for us. It’s at this point in my life that I’ve learned to value my time, which is a new reason to live on.”
Jaime Pérez, Local Tzu Chi volunteer
It’s clear that the seeds of love planted in Mexico in 2017 will grow and bear fruit, continuing to nourish those in need in the future.
Tzu Chi News fully documented the Mexico earthquake relief mission. Watch now.
As the mission in Mexico was progressing, another hurricane was bearing down on the United States, and we would answer the call for help of those affected …
Hurricane Irma Disaster Relief
Five days after Hurricane Harvey had made landfall in Texas, another major hurricane loomed on the horizon, filling the hearts of people in the Caribbean and on the American Gulf and East Coast with dread as it was soon labelled the most powerful Atlantic storm since record-breaking Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
The strength of Hurricane Irma would wax and wane for days, increasing the collective anxiety, especially in areas devastated by Harvey flooding, where people had not even begun to recover. The deadly storm went on to cause extreme destruction in several Caribbean Island nations along its path before making landfall in the U.S. mainland, hitting Florida.
Evacuation orders were in place and states of emergency were declared in several cities in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, although the greatest damage caused by Hurricane Irma occurred in Florida. While the level of destruction was severe, the state was also mourning the death of 82 people who died in storm-related accidents.
We would go on to provide $386,000 in disaster aid in Florida, helping 856 families (3,568 people) in hard-hit Immokalee, Everglades City, and Naples. In each city, our volunteers brought more than just financial aid, as they were there to offer comfort and help ease people’s emotional stress as well.
In recognition and appreciation of our efforts and the transformation she witnessed at our distribution ceremony, Penny Taylor, Chairman of the Collier County Commissioners, proclaimed October 10 “Tzu Chi Foundation Day” in Collier County, Florida.
“[To see] faces wrought with the grief and the horror they’d endured, and what they are enduring - to watch them break into smiles and just see the gentleness and the humanity raise from about 100 people sitting in this room… was extraordinary. I can’t thank you enough. You have touched our lives.”
Penny Taylor, Chairman of the Collier County Commissioners
As the East Coast was coming to terms with the flood destruction of the 2017 hurricane season, California would face a horrendous outbreak of wildfires starting in October...
Wildfire Disaster Relief in Northern California
During the night of Sunday, October 8, a series of wildfires ignited in California. What would go on to be nicknamed the Northern California Firestorm, comprised 250 separate blazes, 21 of which would become major fires that burned over 245,000 acres. Among them, the Tubbs Fire exploded to become the most destructive wildfire in California’s history at the time.
Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte, and Solano were severely affected, counties in which fanned by high winds in dry weather conditions, the wildfires would rage out of control for days, destroying homes with abandon. In their efforts to save lives before property, exhausted firefighters were working long shifts on little sleep, and being assisted by teams coming in from other states, and even crews of inmates.
Our disaster relief mission began by offering meals and blankets for evacuees, and collaborating with the American Red Cross to set-up shelters. We also supported sleep-deprived first-responders, providing our foldable multipurpose beds so they could find a moment’s rest at the forefront of battling the raging infernos, or back at their stations.
The distributions of financial aid that would follow provided $570,800 in direct financial aid, helping 1,119 families forced to rise up from the ashes to rebuild their lives, and reassuring them that they are not alone. Watch our video series about this mission.
Unfortunately, this would not be the end of the fire season in California, as more wildfires ignited in December, dangerously close to Los Angeles …
Wildfire Disaster Relief in Southern California
Multiple wildfires ignited in Southern California early in December, contributing to making 2017 the most destructive fire season on record in the state.
The largest, the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, was so fierce that it became a veritable firestorm, forcing families to flee without a moment to spare, uncertain of what will remain of their homes when they return.
The fire was still burning uncontained when our disaster relief mission began on December 12. By December 16, we had already provided $25,000 in financial relief to 140 residents of the areas consumed by the flames. This relief mission will continue into 2018, and updates will follow in our blog.
2017 truly was a tragic year for many people around the globe. Our volunteers did their best to offer comfort and care while providing financial relief. We were at the ready at all times to mount disaster relief missions where we could and will continue in 2018.
Join Hands with Tzu Chi Relief to send ripples of love to those suffering after disasters around the world. Together, we are making a difference.