The Journey for Hurricane Relief Continues in Fort Myers

Southern  |  October 31, 2022
Fort Myers distribution
A Tzu Chi volunteer reads Master Cheng Yen’s letter to survivors at the Hurricane Ian relief distribution on October 22. Photo/Youbin Huang

Written by: Fangwen Huang and Daphne Liu
Translated by: H.B. Qin
Edited by: Adriana DiBenedetto

On October 22, Tzu Chi volunteers visited Jody Desrosiers’ home in Fort Myers, Florida, which Hurricane Ian had hit hard. Along the way, the small team surveyed what was left of stores, yachts, and cherished homes in what had been one of Florida’s famous vacation destinations. Crosses, photos, and flowers were set up along the coast in memory of the lives lost due to the disaster. Twenty-six days after the hurricane, the streets were still lined with piles of flood-damaged furniture and belongings, creating a strong, musty smell that mingled with that of the salty sea. Many houses’ doors were wide open, with nothing inside but structural beams. Walking in the beach town, Tzu Chi volunteers did not feel the warmth of the late autumn sunshine; they were concerned only for the community residents on this long road to reconstruction.

Jody Desrosiers shows volunteers how high the flooding rose.
Jody Desrosiers, a resident of Fort Myers, Florida, shows volunteers how high the flooding rose when Hurricane Ian landed. Photo/Fangwen Huang
Stores in Fort Myers were battered hard by the disaster, yet locals have hope of returning. Photo/Youbin Huang

Rebuilding the Butterfly Garden

“I’ve lived here for 24 years and have been through 14 hurricanes, but this one felt like it was hovering at a fixed point, with the roaring waves continuing to pour into our neighborhood.” Jody pointed out the signs of flooding on the walls and described the situation with deep sadness. “The water flooded to a height of nearly seven feet, all the furniture on the first floor was soaked and damaged, even the billboard of the beach store nearly two kilometers away washed into my backyard.”

Despite many disaster prevention measures, Jody’s house was still unable to withstand the sheer impact of the hurricane and was torn apart. More distressing for Jody, however, was the total destruction of the butterfly garden that Jody had carefully cultivated for six years. The hurricane had also rendered all five of Jody’s cars completely irreparable after being soaked in floodwater. Despite the devastation of the home after the disaster, Jody said resolutely that he would not give up on rebuilding. He also aims to turn the backyard into a paradise for butterflies once more.

The butterfly garden is my soul, and it is also the place where I meet with the hearts of my mother and friends who passed away.

The hurricane so severely damaged Jody Desrosiers’ garden
The hurricane so severely damaged Jody Desrosiers’ once beautiful butterfly garden that it’s barely recognizable at the moment. Photo/Fangwen Huang
Volunteers ead local residents in sign language songs and prayers
Volunteers from many states in the U.S. lead local residents in sign language songs and prayers at the distribution site. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Tzu Chi volunteers from Texas, New York, Georgia, California, Virginia, and Florida assembled for prior relief distribution efforts on October 15. On October 22, volunteers held their third relief distribution in Fort Myers. A total of 413 households were assisted, benefiting 1,335 survivors, and providing a total of $348,200 in cash cards to help survivors on the road to recovery. 

The Care of a Loving Family

Survivors come to the distribution site in the morning
Hurricane Ian survivors come to the distribution site early in the morning. Photo/Youbin Huang
Denise Gergley was also on the scene to help greet survivors
Denise Gergley, CEO of The Boys & Girls Clubs of Lee County (center, in blue), was also on the scene to help greet survivors. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Volunteers arrived at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lee County early that morning to prepare for the 10 AM distribution. Hurricane survivors who were already waiting outside the venue were greeted warmly by Frank Chen, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Greater Washington DC Region. 

During the distribution ceremony, Tzu Chi Southern Region volunteer Huayin Lin introduced Tzu Chi and its missions to survivors, as well as the story behind Tzu Chi’s signature bamboo banks. 

In a speech from Denise Gergley, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lee County, she expressed her gratitude to the Tzu Chi volunteers for their commitment to the community. Bob Lynch, head of the Tzu Chi Orlando Liaison Office, and Sean Lo, Tzu Chi Southern Region Executive Director, too, conveyed the blessings of Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi volunteers from all around the world. Warmth and care abounded in the space, indeed, as volunteers then led guests in a sign language performance of the piece, “One Family.” 

Volunteers listen to survivors
Volunteers listen intently to survivors and introduce Tzu Chi’s missions. Photo/Youbin Huang
Yaci Li (left) and Zhi’an Shi (right), two graduates from Hualien Tzu Chi University in Taiwan, came to Florida to study for their master’s degrees. Both seized the moment to offer their care in overseas disaster relief for the first time in their lives. Photo/Fangwen Huang

Genuine Love Guides the Way Toward Relief

Survivors whose homes have been affected by tragedies such as this usually apply for Federal Disaster Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA). However, government grants have to go through a survey of the scale of the damage and an approval process, and it can take quite a long time to receive the grant money.

Many survivors cried immediately after they got the cash card from [Tzu Chi] because they were so surprised. They didn’t expect to receive the emergency relief money on the same day.

Heather’s family of three had just moved from Atlanta, GA, to Fort Myers. Their new home, which they had only moved into two weeks prior, was suddenly in ruins. “After the disaster, I felt hopeless and helpless until I met you. We are not related to each other, but you came all the way from other states to provide assistance,” Heather said with sincerity. “In addition to the cash cards and blankets, you also kept cheering us up.”

Katisha Jordan smiles after Tzu Chi sign language performance
Katisha Jordan (right) smiles in the warm atmosphere generated by the Tzu Chi sign language performance. Photo/Fangwen Huang
Volunteers help survivors with their care packages of relief supplies
Volunteers help survivors with their care packages of relief supplies, which include DA.AI Technology’s cozy eco-blankets. Photo/Fangwen Huang

“It’s real — it’s not a scam!” Katisha Jordan beamed brightly as she held up her cash card, taking a picture to send to her friends. She explained to the volunteers that when she heard Tzu Chi was offering disaster relief cash cards, she immediately searched for Tzu Chi online and saw that the foundation also held several relief events after Hurricane Irma in 2017. She’d happily introduced Tzu Chi’s work to her friends and family, encouraging them to apply for assistance, but her companions had initially discouraged her, concerned about the growing multitude of internet scams. Today, Katisha was happy to say she could pass the care forward, and let others know help was available. 

The Journey for Relief Continues

Although Tzu Chi volunteers could only spend a limited amount of time with survivors, the love they felt provided a much-needed boost for attendees as they persevere onward. 

Cecile and her husband both worked on Seibel Island. The family of five had lived in Caloosa Mobile Home Community, with dreams of one day purchasing a more spacious home through their diligent work. The hurricane, however, destroyed the uninsured mobile homes and damaged the stores in town, leaving them jobless. Cecile, who received a cash card and eco-friendly blanket, firmly told volunteers, “We will use the same vigor we had when we came to America and will get back on our feet as soon as possible.”

In the future, we also want to help the less fortunate and carry on this love of yours.

Dave arrives to report on the distribution
Upon hearing about the Hurricane Ian relief event, Dave arrives to report on the distribution. Photo/Fangwen Huang
Volunteer Jiaying Zhao assists senior community members
Volunteer Jiaying Zhao (left) assists senior community members through the process. Photo/Fangwen Huang

A local community member, Tina Lebeau, is temporarily staying at a friend’s house with her dog. When speaking with a volunteer, Tina’s eyes welled with tears as she shared her experience. “My home has been completely destroyed, and I won’t have a place to live in a week,” she said. “There is very little the government can do to help, and I’m worried about how I’m going to rebuild in the future.” The volunteer encouraged and comforted her, and when she received the envelope with her own cash card, she wept again. Tina then graciously donated supplies distributed to her by other organizations on the spot, saying, “You are really thinking of the survivors, and I want to echo your spirit to help those in need.”

AlJabe Williams, his wife, and their young children have been sleeping in the family car since the disaster. But his application form was only for a family of two. “There are many families in the community who have fallen on hard times like us,” he explained. “Therefore, my wife and I decided to report fewer family members after discussion, so that the relief money can be saved and can help more affected families.”

A group photo of the Fort Myers distribution team in Florida on October 22, 2022. Photo/Youbin Huang

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