2016 was a distressing and tragic year for many around the world, as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and other disasters took their toll. Tzu Chi mobilized to assess the damage caused by many of these upheavals, then provided disaster relief to thousands of those affected in the U.S. and internationally.
During the course of the year, our volunteers provided comfort and financial aid after disasters in the U.S. (tornadoes in Texas; floods in Missouri, Illinois, Texas, West Virginia, and Louisiana; Hurricane Matthew in North Carolina; wildfires in California); a massive earthquake in Ecuador; historic flooding in France; Hurricane Matthew in Haiti; and severe flooding in Honduras.
Our 2016 disaster relief started even before the new year officially began.
Over the course of 6 days, volunteers distributed $88,300, helping 358 families (1,224 people) start over after the grim misfortune of losing their homes.
No one could predict that just a few weeks later, a colossal disaster outside the country would require the aid efforts of Tzu Chi volunteers from the U.S. and internationally.
The sun-kissed coast of Ecuador was a paradise with miles of beaches to delight tourists and maintain a local economy, until the 7.8 earthquake of April 16 wreaked havoc on this Latin American nation, killing over 650 people, injuring more than 27,700 others, and leaving close to 7,000 buildings in ruins.
Tzu Chi sent a disaster assessment team, and the devastation they saw was overwhelming, the smell of death still fresh in the air. The team worked tirelessly to reach as many towns as possible. In ravaged coastal towns that rely on tourism, residents were not only homeless or displaced, but also out of work. It became clear that restarting the economy was key.
Tzu Chi launched a Cash-For-Relief disaster aid program, providing payment in exchange for cleaning the streets and clearing rubble. It began in Portoviejo and Manta, and within days a positive outlook began to return. Volunteers made sure the program reached underserved communities, such as Rio Chico and Tarqui.
In Canoa, everyone was eager to work, and favored clearing rubble in hotels first to help get the economy restarted. The stress from the earthquake was far from over, as aftershocks continued to strike the region. Still, soon businesses were reopening, the local Catholic nuns could plan their next mass, and residents were full of hope.
By the time the program reached Pedernales, 1,200 people were waiting to join. From single moms to entire families, everyone proud to work in joyful solidarity, inspired by the change they could see in their town. At the closing ceremony, people were eager to give to the Bamboo Bank to pay the love forward. When the program ended in Manta, residents and Tzu Chi volunteers shared tears of gratitude and love.
Although the program was planned for four cities, due to an impassioned plea for aid from the Mayor of Jama, our volunteers mobilized and brought the program to this fifth city, helping unify a community during a time of crisis. In total, Tzu Chi’s Cash-For-Relief program provided $511,815 in direct aid, while creating 34,121 temporary jobs.
As the Ecuador earthquake relief mission was taking place, back in the United States, Texas was once again in need of relief after a natural disaster.
Texas has a long flood history, but after record-breaking rain pummeled the Houston area in the wettest April on record, the extreme flooding that ensued was the worst since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. More than 120,000 people were impacted, many of their homes completely destroyed.
Tzu Chi USA would provide several disaster aid distributions in the Greater Houston area in May and June; in Wharton, which was gravely affected; Greenspoint, a low-income community; and Richmond and Rosenberg, where hundreds of flood survivors showed up despite the sweltering heat, thankful for our helping hand.
In total, Tzu Chi distributed $139,700 in direct aid, benefitting 359 families (1,284 people)
Meanwhile, the next flood disaster had emerged, this time across the Atlantic, in France.
Continuous torrential rain at the end of May and start of June, had caused rivers to overflow, flooding parts of Europe. On June 3, a natural disaster was declared in France.
Tzu Chi volunteers mobilized, and provided disaster relief in France for the first time. The first distribution was in Salbris, one of the most severely flood-stricken towns in the Sologne region, where residents were taken aback by the unexpected help, the distribution ceremony moving some to tears.
The process of obtaining disaster relief in France can feel cold and bureaucratic, and the human approach and heartfelt kindness shown by Tzu Chi volunteers, even left some seasoned news reporters emotional.
Yet our flood relief was far from over, as back in the U.S., a major flood disaster struck West Virginia at the end of June.
West Virginians in parts of the state, endured what the National Weather Service called a "one-in-a-thousand-year event," when 8-10 inches of rain fell within hours on June 23, causing torrential flash flooding that claimed more than 20 lives.
Tzu Chi USA volunteers from New Jersey mobilized, and drove 9 hours and 533 miles to reach Charleston, West Virginia where they conducted a disaster assessment in the flood affected surrounding areas.
In the days to come, they would organize several disaster relief distributions, and provide $355,400 in immediate aid. Their mission was of direct help to 828 families struggling after the catastrophic flash floods.
As people in West Virginia began to recover, tens of thousands in Louisiana were about to brave a historic deluge of their own.
It would be labelled as the “worst U.S. disaster since Hurricane Sandy,” and began with a historic 1-in-500-year rainfall event that dropped 7.1 trillion gallons of water on the greater Baton Rouge area in August.
Lives were lost as this catastrophe progressed, and more than 60,000 homes were destroyed, leaving more than 120,000 people anguished and displaced. Even aid and charity organizations were affected, hindering their efforts to help.
Tzu Chi USA mounted an extensive disaster relief mission, and for flood survivors who were piling up their irreversibly water-damaged belongings on the street like trash, our help was a welcome beacon of hope.
As was evident from their stories, although they came home to mud and soot, the spirit of Louisiana flood survivors was unbroken: From those who retained hope even when family members were missing; to businesses that came to the aid of their employees; to resilient survivors of Hurricane Katrina who now faced misfortune anew.
While heavy rain was causing floods in Texas, West Virginia and Louisiana during the summer months of 2016, prolonged drought on the West Coast had unleashed another disastrous wildfire season in California, and our volunteers brought relief.
Our 2016 California wildfire disaster relief mission began in response to the Border Fire, which ignited on June 19 near the town of Potrero, 18 miles east of the Greater San Diego area. The blaze would not be 100 percent contained until nearly 2 weeks later, and by then it had burned 7,609 acres, leaving many homes in ashes.
Tzu Chi USA held disaster relief distributions that provided $9,400 in immediate aid, benefitting 333 people who had been evacuated from Potrero. Home visits were also conducted, and additional cash cards were distributed so that no one was left behind.
On June 23, another deadly wildfire began in California, in Kern County. The Erskine Fire was the most destructive blaze in the history of the county, causing $22.6 million in damage as it incinerated over 48,000 acres. After 3 days of distribution of cash cards, 217 families could benefit from the $95,450 that was provided.
Many aid recipients were still traumatized, knowing the inferno could have easily claimed their lives as well. Tzu Chi’s disaster aid after this nightmare was a financial relief - considering the material things that had been consumed by the flames - but the love offered by our volunteers was of equal value, and greatly appreciated.
Tragically, the Clayton Fire that began on August 13 near Clayton Creek in Lake County, was set by an arsonist, and the voracious flames would consume roughly 200 houses. While escaping alive was their only concern, when residents returned to the charred remains of their homes, they knew that a lot of their past was lost forever. They were thankful for comfort and aid provided by our volunteers.
The Blue Cut Fire began on August 16, as a small brush fire north of San Bernardino, some 60 miles from Los Angeles. Within 2 hours, this explosive blaze had already claimed a few thousand acres, and was spreading with such ferocity that it was spouting fire tornadoes along the way.
It burned more than 37,000 acres by the time it was subdued, destroying over 100 homes and 200 buildings that lay in its path. Tzu Chi USA collaborated with the American Red Cross, to provide a disaster aid distribution where a total of $8,000 in financial aid was provided, benefitting 24 families.
In total, over 200 Tzu Chi USA volunteers participated in providing disaster relief to families in California affected by destructive wildfires in 2016, distributing emergency supplies and cash cards totaling $172,724.
A relief mission followed swiftly, beginning with the provision of hot meals in the city of Jérémie, where many were in despair after the hurricane, lacking basic necessities such as food, water and medicine.
Hurricane Matthew damaged a great deal of agriculture on the southern coast of Haiti, and food was very much a top priority for many survivors in the town of Les Cayes, where hot meals were offered next, as distributions of rice also began in hard-hit places like Les Cayes and Jérémie.
But the suffering caused by Hurricane Matthew would continue past Haiti, to the United States, where we offered disaster relief next.
After causing extensive damage in Haiti and other Caribbean islands, Hurricane Matthew tore into the Eastern Seaboard, showing little mercy. It reached North Carolina on October 10, where it destroyed homes, possessions, and lives. Our disaster assessment then relief for North Carolina was mobilized soon after.
The town of Lumberton was hard-hit, and Tzu Chi USA’s disaster aid was offered there first, making sure it brought relief to everyone in need, including undocumented and uninsured residents. The distribution provided 120,000 in aid, benefitting 300 families in the area.
The next distribution was in Tarboro, where many residents came home to houses where nothing could be salvaged. People were grateful for the helping hand, and some were inspired to volunteer and help others, bolstering the circle of love.
And that love was already continuing, as our volunteers were helping those in need far from the U.S. once again, this time in Honduras.
Heavy rain beginning on October 18, had caused severe flooding in Central America, with thousands of homes damaged. Honduras, where Tzu Chi had completed construction of Villa Gran Amor in Monjaras, Marcovia and Choluteca, was impacted.
Tragically, some of the homes built in Marcovia in 2013 were inundated up to their roofs. Tzu Chi mobilized to bring aid, and soon 100 tons of rice arrived from our foundation’s headquarters in Taiwan, while other food staples were purchased locally.
We provided 22 lbs of rice, 10 lbs of beans, corn, and a foldable bed for each of the 1,000 families affected by the flood.
Looking Back with Loving Hearts
2016 was a challenging year for many around the globe, and this should only bolster our heart to be responsive to those suffering in the world. We pray for the safety and happiness of everyone in the New Year 2017, but let’s be at the ready to help, because our love saves.
As Master Cheng Yen reminds us, “Human beings are nurtured by all kinds of things produced and grown on the Earth, so we must care for our natural resources with gratitude and allow the Earth to maintain its beauty.”
Alas, our collective behavior as human beings is wreaking havoc on the planet, giving rise to climate change, and ensuing natural disasters. Let’s take inspiration from Master Cheng Yen who states that, “Protecting the environment begins with cultivating the human mind.” Let’s take this as our path in the new year and always.
“Pure Water” needs to surge from everyone’s heart to cool the overheating Earth
- Jing Si Aphorism