Tzu Chi Southern Region Volunteers Aid Hurricane Ian Survivors Slow Rebuild in Devastated Pine Island, Florida

Southern  |  March 23, 2023
Care recipients receiving blessing
Residents participating in the community tea party are given a gift bag and the Tzu Chi volunteers explain each small item. Photo/Allen Tsai

Written by: Allen Tsai, Judy Su
Translated by: H.B. Qin
Edited by: Patrick McShane

Hurricane Ian hit the state of Florida in September of 2022. This storm was the deadliest hurricane in nearly 100 years and is the 3rd costliest weather disaster in the state’s history. Cognizant of the extensive damage and loss of life, Tzu Chi Southern Region Executive Director Sean Luo, volunteer Shu Yi Bai, and volunteers from Orlando and Miami held several meetings and decided to go to the disaster area on March 4 for a mid-to-long-term care trip to a mobile home community, the Palms at Pine Island, in Pine Island, Florida, for home visits and assessments, and to hold a community prayer tea party at the Northwest Regional Chiquita Library.

Volunteers Assess the Situation

Tzu Chi Southern Region CEO and
On behalf of Tzu Chi Southern Region, Executive Director Sean Luo thanks the three Freedom Waters volunteers who came to help. Photo/Allen Tsai
Tzu Chi volunteer and care recipient standing in front of affected area of Hurricane Ian
There are still damaged homes and the recovery work is slow in the aftermath of this devastating storm. Photo/ Sherry Xu

Tzu Chi Southern Region volunteers returned to Pine Island nearly six months after the storm made landfall. This was one of the hardest hit areas, and there were still numerous damaged homes and businesses that had yet to be repaired. The progress of the recovery work was slow and the residents were suffering. Thirteen volunteers, including Tzu Chi volunteers from Houston, Orlando, and Miami, three friends from Freedom Waters, a Naples-based charity organization, together with three local volunteers from the mobile home community, split up into two groups and began home visits.

According to the local volunteers, about half of the affected residents had already moved out, and the remaining survivors who could not afford to move were mostly living a difficult life, repairing their homes little by little, with almost all of the recovery work done together with their families. There were only a few projects being done by professional contractors.

The volunteers had the opportunity to engage with numerous community members, predominantly consisting of low-income Spanish-speaking immigrants, who face challenges in English communication. Utilities in some of their homes had not yet been fully restored, and the landlords were still pressing tenants for rent on a monthly basis, and according to some residents, the rent had even increased by 10% despite the condition of the structures.

Residents Can’t Afford to Move, so They Have to Make Do With What They Have

While visiting the disaster area, volunteers learned that subsidies and grants from the State of Florida, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross, and other agencies were not available to many families. Some residents showed rental invoices, utility bills, and FEMA denial letters and asked the volunteers for help. 

Local volunteers led Tzu Chi volunteers from Miami as well as Cindy Schuetz, Audrey Booher, and Chris Chase from Freedom Waters to visit affected families. The residents shared their struggles and discussed how difficult it is to rebuild after a disaster. One resident, Martina, is a new mother with a baby boy who was born just two months ago on New Year’s Day. Although her boyfriend works seven days a week, his gardening job does not pay enough to cover daily expenses and repairs on their damaged roof and windows. Though it is currently the warm dry season in Florida and there is no need to worry about water leakage and mold, when the rainy season comes in May, the home may become uninhabitable.

Among the affected residents, those who work in restaurants are the most severely affected. They not only lost their jobs but are also ineligible for government relief. These vulnerable residents, who could not afford to move out, could only continue to live in damaged homes. It was only after they learned that Tzu Chi was in the area to assist those affected by the storm that they gradually opened their hearts and told their stories.

Planting the Seeds of Hope in the Community

All the volunteers from the Tzu Chi Southern Region along with many others who worked to help those affected by Hurricane Ian wish that the seeds of hope could be planted through their hard work. This aid distribution, as well as one in Naples last October, was supported by volunteers from Freedom of Waters, along with the dedicated work of four loving local volunteers: Cindy, Audrey, Chris, and Gigi Felicetta.

As these new friendships and partnerships flourished, the Miami volunteers took advantage of the positive energy to arrange future monthly meetups such as a tea party at Freedom of Waters, case care at the Red Cross shelter, and the filming of a Lunar New Year’s Eve video for Master Cheng Yen, among others. Through interaction and companionship, many were able to learn more about Tzu Chi, and everyone hoped that the seeds of love would sprout and grow soon, allowing the spirit of Tzu Chi to take root in these areas.

I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know Tzu Chi and become part of this family because we are a family sharing each other's lives!

As Tzu Chi volunteers continue to care for the residents of the affected areas on the west coast of Florida, they are assisted by kind members of the local community who work hard to help their neighbors. Chris, a local volunteer, was limping while walking with the Tzu Chi volunteers on their home visits: “I had hip replacement surgery due to an accident while walking my dog. Walking is like rehab exercise, doing home visits on foot is no problem for me.” She also shared her life story with the volunteers. Four years ago, her husband passed away due to a cerebral hemorrhage. Her happy life was shattered overnight. After losing her lifetime partner, she was forced to sell her beautiful home and move to a two-room apartment, and learn to live alone. Fortunately, Cindy and Audrey have been her colleagues and best friends for over twenty years and accompanied her through those difficult days. Now the three of them often volunteer together.

The group takes a photo after the event Photo/Allen Tsai

In the afternoon, the local residents were invited to the Northwest Regional Chiquita Library to attend a community tea party held by Tzu Chi. They all looked forward to Tzu Chi’s help, and the volunteers hoped that everyone could repair their damaged homes and return to their normal lives as soon as possible.

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