Written by Yuying Xu
Edited by Sophie X. Song
Summary: On September 1, 2021, Hurricane Ida devastated many cities in New Jersey. Working with the municipal government and the Red Cross, volunteers from Tzu Chi’s New Jersey Chapter decided to host the third Ida relief distribution in the city of Elizabeth, where many had lost their homes. On September 25, 20 Tzu Chi volunteers and 13 Red Cross volunteers went to the Embassy Suites by Hilton, where the local government had settled the affected households, bringing with them much-needed relief supplies, including cash cards, eco-blankets and face masks.
“It was supposed to be an ordinary thunderstorm,” a Hurricane Ida victim recalled about the Category 4 natural disaster that ended up devastating whole towns and cities across Northeastern United States. “How could I know that when I woke up, my house and car would be gone?”
On September 1, Hurricane Ida swept across Louisiana, New Jersey and other states in Northeastern U.S. Oakwood Plaza in the city of Elizabeth, NJ, and the neighborhood surrounding it were one of the hardest hit regions. Approximately 260 households living in the apartment building were evacuated, and the building was declared uninhabitable by municipal health officials in the storm’s aftermath.
Volunteers from Tzu Chi’s New Jersey Chapter, located just 39 kilometers south of Elizabeth, drove there in the wake of the hurricane to conduct disaster assessment. After conferring with the Red Cross and the municipal government, the volunteers decided to hold the third disaster relief distribution for Hurricane Ida victims in Elizabeth, benefitting the families that had lost everything overnight.
Unleashing the Power of Love
On September 25, 20 Tzu Chi volunteers drove to the Embassy Suites by Hilton, where government aid workers had settled the affected households, to distribute cash cards, Tzu Chi’s own eco-blankets and face masks. Dawn Morris from the Illinois Chapter of the Red Cross was also on the scene with 13 Red Cross volunteers, who assisted in the distribution.
The event started at 10 o’clock, with Weiguang Zhang, one of the Tzu Chi volunteers, respectfully reading Master Cheng Yen’s letter of condolences to all those who were suffering from the hurricane. He then led the volunteers to pray for the displaced families’ safety by singing “Love and Care”.
The distribution began after this solemn ceremony. Red Cross volunteers took charge of maintaining order outside the venue. Only eight people were admitted inside at any one time, to keep both the volunteers and the families safe from COVID-19 infections. Once inside, each affected household filled out the distribution form in an orderly manner with the assistance of a Tzu Chi volunteer. At the second station, a volunteer entered their information into the computer, while the volunteer at the third station registered the serial number on the cash cards, and taught the aid recipients how to use the cards.
“Master, thank you very much for your loving help,” Pamela Brown, one of the Ida victims, cried when she found out that she would receive $600 on the cash card, and took the volunteer’s hand with gratitude. “You are giving me hope with your aid when I am at my lowest. Thank you very much!”
As volunteers from the Comfort Group handed over the cash cards, they also conveyed Master Cheng Yen’s condolences to the disaster victims, and extended the blessings of all Tzu Chi volunteers.
“Remember that you are not alone,” the volunteers said encouragingly in a firm voice. “As long as you need our help, we will always be here for you! I also hope that you can get back on your feet and gather your courage as soon as possible. In the future, when you are able, you can also pay it forward and help others in need.”
The volunteers also prepared English and Spanish versions of Jing Si Aphorism for families with children. When the kids saw the cute picture books, they immediately began to smile. In addition, each family also received a box of face masks and a Tzu Chi eco-friendly blanket. Everyone was pleasantly surprised by the blankets and exclaimed “Wow! How soft!” They were even more amazed that each blanket was manufactured from 70 recycled plastic bottles. The volunteers took the opportunity to talk about the importance of protecting the Earth, hoping to increase awareness for environmental protection through these special and heartwarming blankets.
Lending Ears to Unique Stories
The volunteers learned at the distribution that each household affected by Hurricane Ida had their own story, and each was dealing with the aftermath in their own way. Some kept silent about what had happened, while others talked in order to process their losses.
Zimpa is a single mother of three. She said that the flooding in her apartment was so bad that she had to tell her kids to stand with one foot on a doorknob to stay above water while they waited for rescue. At the distribution, Zimpa’s daughter showed the volunteers pictures of their now uninhabitable home. She didn’t know if they would ever be able to go back home, as the family now faced an uncertain future, one shared by all the Ida victims.
Zimpa’s brother-in-law, Ahmed, was also a victim of the disaster. It was clear that fears of that night still lingered with him as he recalled water as high as his chest. For Ahmed, watching from his window a mother who saw her baby being carried off in the flood without being able to do anything was a devastating sight he was unlikely to ever forget.
“I thought it was just raining that night, but my neighbor called and said that my car was floating in water, and the front door of my house had been flooded,” Danielle Glynn, a young single mother who was very grateful to receive aid from Tzu Chi, recalled of the terrifying night. “We stayed on the second floor until the water receded at 5 o’clock the next morning. Everything was a terrible mess. I lost my home and my car. We’ll have to start over, find somewhere else to stay, and take it one day at a time.”
When the volunteers found out that it was Yanelis’ birthday that day, they began to broadcast the Spanish version of “Happy Birthday” to her, because she was from the Dominican Republic. A joyous atmosphere permeated the entire venue then, even though the families had just been in tears as they talked about their losses.
“The cash card and the blanket are the best birthday present for me,” Yanelis said happily.
Spreading Love and Compassion
Before this distribution, the COVID-19 pandemic had unfortunately put a stop to many Tzu Chi events for quite some time. The volunteers were kept at home and could only participate in a few events through video conferencing. Despite these health concerns, many volunteers immediately went out of their homes to help when Hurricane Ida struck. Witnessing others’ suffering, many of them acknowledged how grateful they were for the security of their own lives.
Liling Gao assisted mothers affected by the disaster at the distribution, helping them fill out the application forms and watching over their kids. She spoke of the fearsome force of impermanence, and how the distribution made her realize how precious her peaceful everyday life was.
“We only have the present because no one knows what will happen in the future,” Gao said. “But with dharma in one’s heart, every difficult situation can be taken in stride.”
“I have been responsible for international disaster relief and distribution for many years, and I’ve forgotten how it felt in the beginning,” Taibo Zhu, who had had to stay at home for some time due to the pandemic, said with genuine feeling. “I am happy because participating in this event has reminded me of why I got involved in Tzu Chi in the first place.”
Even some of those who suffered losses themselves, like Rongping Shi, put aside their personal affairs to help others. Shi’s car was stuck on a flooded street the night of the storm. He didn’t realize how bad it was until he stepped out, and saw that the water level had already reached his calf. Even so, it was more important to him to spread love and compassion to others by helping out at the event, Shi said.
Not only was love abundant at the distribution, but compassionate love was also sent from all over the world. Weiguang Zhang showed everyone a check for $10,000, donated by the Bodhi Education Foundation, a Buddhist organization like Tzu Chi, for Hurricane Ida relief. The check was accepted by Tina Lee, the Executive Director of the New Jersey Chapter, on behalf of Tzu Chi.
“Hurricane Ida hit eastern United States, especially New Jersey, so the Bodhi Education foundation donated money to Tzu Chi to help people affected by the disaster,” Lee said.
A total of 52 disaster-stricken households who needed urgent assistance received help at this distribution. Every one of these families had been living in the hotel for three weeks following the loss of their homes and cars. Somehow, they must find the courage to go on with their lives despite many setbacks in their day-to-day life. For example, the kids had to take school buses or public buses to school, and if the bus didn’t serve this area, they would have to call an Uber. The adults took the buses as well, or rented a car, making something as mundane as running an errand difficult to accomplish. When asked how long they would have to stay at the hotel, and where they planned to live in the future, everyone could only offer the same helpless answer: “I don’t know.”
After living restricted lives for over a year under the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, these disaster victims now had to deal with the loss of their homes, and in some cases, the tragic deaths of family members. Their futures would be full of uncertainties.
Thankfully, Tzu Chi volunteers at the distribution not only gave these families much-needed material support, but also ample spiritual comfort. There may always be suffering in this world, but hopefully the love and compassion that Tzu Chi spreads throughout many communities will inspire these suffering souls to find courage again, and get back up on their feet.