Written by Qizhen Huang, Lishan Ho, Qiongyu Liao, Pinyao Lee
Translated by H.B. Qin
Edited by Andrea Barkley
On March 10, 2023, a powerful atmospheric river caused significant damage across California, hitting areas already struggling to recover from a similar disaster in January. Counties in northern California, such as Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Gilroy, were among the hardest hit. Residents who lived by the Pajaro River in Monterey County suddenly awoke to overflowing banks in the early hours of March 11. The resulting floods damaged hundreds of homes and forced around 2,000 people to evacuate from Gilroy, a small town in southern Santa Clara County.
Tzu Chi Northwest Region volunteers had been observing the disaster area for several days. On March 12, a seven-member disaster assessment team visited the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds shelter. The volunteers worked with the county and the Central Coast Chapter of the Red Cross to learn more about the current situation and prepare for upcoming aid distributions. Tzu Chi volunteers also traveled to the shore of a breached bank to care for storm survivors there.
Many homes flooded after a local mountain creek transformed into a “river” overnight. Tzu Chi volunteers saw a trailer and car submerged in the water. The homeowner said the rain was very heavy that night, and they were monitoring the water level. Evacuation might be needed at any time.
Happy Reunions Despite the Troubling Times
“Here are our old friends!” said Antonio Rivas, one of the board members of the Central Coast Red Cross, when he first saw the Tzu Chi volunteers. The volunteers were pleasantly surprised by the gracious welcome. These Tzu Chi Northwest Region volunteers traveled to nearby Watsonville every Christmas to distribute supplies and gifts to families in need for at least 20 years and were very familiar with the residents.
Minjhing Hsieh, Executive Director of Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest Region, was guided by Antonio Rivas to learn about the current situation at the shelter. On March 21, 234 survivors temporarily relocated to the Fairgrounds. Fortunately, the shelter had no shortage of food and supplies, but the sudden flooding hit the residents hard.
Michele Averill, CEO of the Central Coast Region of the Red Cross, expressed her gratitude to Tzu Chi for all they have done. She said she was happy to see Tzu Chi volunteers again. She kindly explained to the Tzu Chi volunteers about the housing facilities and how the local Red Cross has been working to prepare for another storm predicted to come on Tuesday. The volunteers had the opportunity to witness and learn how well the Red Cross reacts to natural disasters.
Tzu Chi and the American Red Cross have worked together many times in disaster relief, and the Tzu Chi volunteers were like family to them. Virginia Becker, a photographer for the American Red Cross, said, “As long as I see Tzu Chi volunteers wearing white hats in disaster areas, my heart will be at ease. The kindness and smiles of Tzu Chi volunteers will shine on every wounded soul.”
A New Connection Between Organizations
Melissa Gluck, head of Emergency Response at World Central Kitchen, first went to San Bernardino, California, to learn about the disaster and then flew to northern California for assessment after learning about the Pajaro River disaster. Gluck introduced herself to the Tzu Chi volunteers. She was impressed when she learned that Tzu Chi, like the World Central Kitchen, was also helping refugees in Poland and earthquake survivors in Turkey. They exchanged business cards and agreed to keep in touch and work together to help disaster survivors in the future.
Learning About Survivors’ Struggles
After leaving the shelter, Tzu Chi USA’s Northwest volunteers made their way to Pajaro, the area that suffered the most damage and where over 600 families were affected. The bridge to downtown Pajaro was blocked due to the storm. As a result, many families living on the river’s banks could not access their homes on the other side.
Anais’ family of eight has lived in the Pajaro River basin for many years. The family, who does agricultural work to make a living, now slept in the corner of the shelter. In addition to damaged houses, the back-to-back flood affected the livelihoods of many farmworker families. Life is difficult without work or income, and help is desperately needed. Learning that Anais’s mother was cold at night, the volunteers thoughtfully brought out Tzu Chi’s DA.AI eco-friendly blankets. Anais also provided her phone number in the hope that she could help Tzu Chi with disaster relief in the future.
Micaela Valdivia lives with her family of four. She showed Tzu Chi volunteers a Facebook message on her phone, which indicated that the floodwaters had reached a height of two stories, and, therefore, her family home was damaged. To recover from the disaster, Valdivia and her family planned to go to their relatives’ place in Castroville, about a 30-minute drive away. However, they discovered that several roads were blocked, making it challenging to reach their destination. Valdivia was hoping to find alternate routes before it got dark. However, when the volunteer saw the young baby sleeping in the car seat, they were deeply concerned and took down Valdivia’s contact information for future care and assistance once they assessed the situation.
Ángel Luna, who lives by himself, lived not far from Pajaro and made his living doing odd jobs. He couldn’t return home due to the flooding and lived in his car, parked on the roadside next to the riverbank, for the past few days. Tzu Chi volunteers gave him a warm blanket to help him get through the cold, wet nights. They hoped he would receive early assistance from all parties, including Tzu Chi, and return to his home as soon as possible.
During times of disaster, Tzu Chi adheres to the principle of “focus and directness” to assist those most in need. This tenet involves providing immediate aid to survivors and preparing for ongoing disaster relief efforts to ensure they receive the necessary care and support. Tzu Chi wishes all disaster survivors a quick and easy recovery.