Relief After Flooding in San Diego: Gabriel and Lourdes Share Their Story

National Headquarters  |  March 14, 2024
Play Video about Lourdes lost everything because of the flood. She hugged Tzu Chi volunteers and thanked Tzu Chi for its help.

Lourdes, who lost everything due to flooding in San Diego in early 2024, hugs a Tzu Chi volunteer, thanking Tzu Chi for its help. Photo/Michael Mazur

Written by Michael Mazur and Sarah Winter
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Ida Eva Zielinska

On January 22, 2024, in Southern California, San Diego experienced the worst rainstorm on record in 174 years. Several feet of water flooded areas like Mountain View, Shelltown, Southcrest, and highways, including Interstate 15. Communities neighboring the floodway were the hardest hit; many survivors shared videos of the onset of flooding through social media, showing cars parked on the street swept away by the floodwaters.

The water level in the Fashion Valley area of ​​the San Diego River rose to the flood warning level in the afternoon, reaching a peak level of 11.25 feet (approximately 3.429 meters) at 9:30 p.m.
In Fashion Valley, the San Diego River’s water level attains flood alert heights on January 22, 2024, with the peak reaching 11.25 feet. Graph/Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes

The Tzu Chi USA San Diego Service Center held the first disaster relief distribution on February 11. Subsequently, from February 16 to 18, Tzu Chi volunteers invited affected families who had completed the disaster aid application process to the Service Center to receive cash cards and relief packages. Each package contains an eco-friendly blanket and pen, a personal hygiene pack, an ear thermometer, Tzu Chi’s monthly newsletter, and a Jing Si Aphorism in four languages, expressing Dharma Master Cheng Yen’s wisdom and teachings

On-site, the volunteers also gathered donated goods from the Treasure Hut at Tzu Chi USA National Headquarters, including clothing, shoes, toys, and household items such as pots and pans, which the affected families could look through and take what they needed. By February 18, Tzu Chi has deployed 82 volunteers to distribute supplies to 184 affected families, benefiting 703 survivors.

Helpless While the Flood Waters Rose

For Gabriel, January 22, 2024, was most mundane as he left for work that morning. It was overcast and drizzling, but the weather was nothing out of the ordinary — certainly nothing to cause alarm or prepare him and his wife, Lourdes, for a shock later that day.

As they got home in the evening and opened their front door, they were stunned to see a few inches of water inside the entire house, with the level rising swiftly. “We started saving as much as possible, putting things inside closets on the highest parts,” Gabriel recounted. As the couple began a race against time to save what they could of their belongings, Gabriel was aware of the floodwater rising dangerously high outside the windows.

Gabriel came home from get off work to find his home flooded.
Gabriel and Lourdes find their house flooding quickly when they return home on the evening of January 22, 2024. Photo/Screenshot from Gabriel’s mobile phone video
Gabrielle and Lourdes climbed onto the roof of the pickup truck.
The vantage point from atop a pickup truck, where Gabriel and Lourdes find momentary safety. Photo/Screenshot from Gabriel’s mobile phone video

The weather was not kind that day as the catastrophe unfolded beyond their home, with endless torrential rain pouring down. Right after the winds and downpour, the water level rose rapidly, and in less than 25 minutes, the once-still streets became raging rivers, and the city transformed into a turbulent ocean. 

In what seemed only a fraction of a second to Gabriel, the floodwaters had risen as high as the windows when he looked outside the house again, stunned. He realized the gravity of the situation: They wouldn’t have a chance if they didn’t escape immediately. “Let’s get out of here,” Gabriel remembers saying to Lourdes urgently, knowing the couple had to abandon everything to seek safety. 

The situation was especially precarious for the two as Lourdes couldn’t swim. She nearly drowned several times during the escape efforts but was fortunately rescued by Gabriel. In desperation, Lourdes asked firefighters in the area for help, but they said there was nothing they could do amid such raging floodwaters.

We’ve been living here for 24 years, and in less than 25 minutes, we lost everything. Sad it is, yeah. Yeah.

The couple struggled to climb to the top of a pickup truck, where they found temporary refuge. Roaring waters and mist extended in every direction. “In no less than 25 minutes, it was a river. What would happen if that water rose higher? We’d drown right there. We’d die, you know?” Gabriel reflected as he looked back at that terrifying moment. 

Once the floodwater finally receded, the house that Gabriel and Lourdes had called home for years was soaked to the core, leaving little but the structure’s skeleton as they removed the damaged walls. It was standing in the house with nothing left in it that Gabriel told the Tzu Chi volunteers who had come to deliver a temporary bed what happened to him and his wife on the day of the flood when they came close to the brink of death.

Getting Over Troubles Together with Smiles and Hugs

The floodwaters receded but left behind ruins, amid which Tzu Chi volunteers from the San Diego Service Center were among the first to come to the rescue. Learning about the disaster, Tzu Chi USA mobilized on the same day, dispatching volunteers to the impacted areas. The volunteers visited the affected residents by going door-to-door and providing relief supplies and cash cards to help them overcome their difficulties.

Volunteers from Tzu Chi’s San Diego Liaison Office quickly launched into disaster relief work.
Tzu Chi USA San Diego Service Center volunteers quickly get to work on disaster relief efforts. Photo/Michael Mazur
Lourdes (left) and Gabriel (middle) receive cash cards and supplies at the Tzu Chi San Diego Liaison Office.
Lourdes (left) and Gabriel (middle) receive cash cards and supplies at the Tzu Chi USA San Diego Service Center. Photo/Michael Mazur

The San Diego Service Center also invited the affected families to the office several times to pick up aid distribution supplies. As the survivors who came were gloomy, coping with the challenges of their post-disaster situation, the volunteers tried to cheer them up, greeting them with warm smiles and upbeat energy and extending consoling hugs.

To inspire the survivors, the volunteers shared Tzu Chi’s spiritual philosophy and founding bamboo bank story, demonstrating that even small positive deeds — like saving a little money daily to donate to those in need — can do much good. By performing uplifting songs using sign language, they also aimed to instill hope to help the disaster survivors persevere and rebuild their homes.

On the Long Road to Recovery

The flood severely damaged Gabriel and Lourdes’ house, and they lost all their belongings. They had to stay in a hotel, where plastic bags of clothes and necessities — all they had left — filled their room. When Tzu Chi volunteers visited the couple, Lourdes sat on the bed and cried as she expressed her sorrow about what had happened and her gratitude to Tzu Chi for its aid and emotional support. However, living in a hotel was not a long-term solution.

The next day, Tzu Chi volunteer Tenshang Joh went to Gabriel and Lourdes’ house and gave the couple a multifunction bed made of recycled plastic, hoping they could temporarily use it and at least have a place to rest. Standing in the ruins, Joh was emotional. “It’s a very heartbreaking situation. When you walk in here, the whole house is pretty much gutted,” he lamented, then noted, “Yet you can see that the couple love each other and give each other support. This community is very resilient. People helping each other, it’s unbelievable.” The material losses had not broken their spirit.

Tzu Chi volunteer Zhou Tianxiang (right) delivers a Fuhui bed to Gabriel and his wife.
Tzu Chi volunteer Tenshang Joh gives Gabriel and Lourdes a temporary bed. Photo/Michael Mazur
Lourdes expresses gratitude.
Lourdes expresses her gratitude. Photo/Michael Mazur

Disasters come unexpectedly and turn life upside down. In a short 25-minute period, the recent flooding in San Diego was enough to wipe out this one couple’s decades of hard work. However, the hope of rebuilding their home still shines and leads them forward. For Gabriel and Lourdes, as for many other survivors of this catastrophe, the road to full recovery will be long and arduous, yet they are up to it, and Tzu Chi volunteers will accompany them. 

As volunteer Tenshang Joh went to the door and waved goodbye to Gabriel and Lourdes, the sun rose on the horizon, its light ever there, shining brightly. Tzu Chi volunteers will always be there, too, nationwide and beyond, ready to bring the light of hope and support along the long journey of rebuilding after disaster strikes. 

More News Stories