Tzu Chi Volunteers Hear First Hand Accounts of Tornado Survivors’ Struggles, Vowing to Help on A Personal Level

Midwest  |  March 22, 2022
Volunteers go over supplies in the distribution bags to recipients. Photography / Yue Ma

Written by Meizhen Qian, Pheel Wang
Translated by Hong (Ariel) Chan
Edited by Maggie Morgan

On Dec. 10 and 11, 2021, 61 rare and intense winter tornadoes hit the Midwest, sweeping across eight states and leaving a trail of destruction behind them. Communities along the tornados’ paths tumbled to the ground; hundreds of people went missing, over 600 were injured and there were at least 90 casualties.

Volunteers from the Tzu Chi Midwestern Regional Office held a disaster relief distribution before New Year’s Day, connecting with families who had lost their homes, jobs, and belongings as a result of the windstorm. Many individuals who came to the event were visibly suffering and couldn’t help weeping as they recalled how their lives had changed in an instant. With nothing left, the survivors were struggling to address their current life circumstances, let alone consider the future.

A Second Wave of Struggle: Family Loses Their Home Twice Within Two Years

Six to eight minutes before the tornado hit, I jumped in the car and ran. I drove a mile away, got out of the car, and looked back at the tornado that hit our house. It was heartbreaking to watch the tornado destroy our home.

Rodney Burgess, tornado survivor

Rodney Burgess painfully described the disaster to Tzu Chi volunteers saying, “Actually, before I left home, I had anticipated that my home would not be preserved.”

Rodney and his wife, Bessie Burgess, are from Mayfield, Kentucky, one of the hardest-hit areas in the Midwest. The couple came to the Tzu Chi USA disaster relief site on Dec. 22 in hopes of finding some support to move forward. When the volunteers listened to their stories, they were heartbroken to learn that the young pair had lost their home twice within two years.

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Mayfield is Rodney’s hometown, and two years earlier he had endured another traumatic experience that hit much closer to home. The survivor watched the house where he grew up be completely ravaged by an accidental fire. “Two years ago in January, we were hit by a fire and the whole house was burned down.”

“This tornado that hit at midnight was really scary,” Bessie explained with lingering fear, “my husband wants to build my dream home for me. We used all the money and couldn’t get loans. He worked alone and, as long as he had time in the past two years, he would use it to build the house. Aside from a bit of unfinished interior, our dream house was complete.”

Within seconds of the tornado striking, the home that Rodney had designed and built by himself was uprooted and thrown into the air. The structure landed hundreds of meters away, turning the entire house into debris. “We invested all of our money into that house, all of our time, effort, and affection,” Rodney said helplessly. While Bessie wiped away tears, she echoed his sentiment, “This is the second time we’ve had this situation, to lose everything. I don’t want Rodney to spend another two years of his life rebuilding our home.”

Although the entire community, the street we live on, it’s all been destroyed; we will rebuild, despite the difficulty.

Tornado victim, Rodney Burgess

Home Is Where The Heart Is: Survivors Struggle To Leave Their Residences

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Bryan Hale, the owner of another disaster-stricken home, mentioned that his wife, Elizabeth, had received a notification about the Tzu Chi distribution event the day before. She had wondered how something as good as a cash card distribution could even be possible, but Bryan hurriedly said to his wife, “I recognize this organization. I have seen them doing disaster relief in different places…”.

Tzu Chi volunteers visited the Hale house, and Bryan pointed to the broken roof and said, “Our front window was blown away, and this part of the roof was swept away. The front half of the house is a metal roof, which is only damaged but still intact, so people can still live here, but the house is completely soaked by the rain.” 

The Hale family managed to temporarily use the generator and live in the half-destroyed home. Because the electricity meter and circuit wires in the house were torn out by the wind, the entire circuit box was destroyed. The power company has yet to restore power to their home. Bryan expressed his reluctance to relocate: “We really don’t want to leave our home, but we may have to move out of here.”

“I looked up and saw the roof being blown away. I could even see what the tornado looked like,” survivor Richard Foley recalled. Richard’s car was destroyed in the windstorm and it has made simple tasks like buying groceries a difficult feat. He held the cash card given to him by the volunteers and exclaimed, “I am very grateful to have survived the tornado. After all, so many people have passed away. The most important thing for me now is to get transportation. I am really in need of help so thank you very much.”

Materials prepared by Tzu Chi volunteers for disaster victims. Photography / Yue Ma
Volunteers explain more about the Tzu Chi Bamboo Banks to recipients. Photography / Yue Ma

Angel Sanderson, who took refuge in her company’s warehouse, described how the tornado ripped away the building’s second floor and above. Angel told volunteers that she would use the cash card to buy a bed or some furniture for her child. She expressed her grief regarding the community’s situation: “The whole town has been torn down. It is indeed a blessing from God that you are here. It is amazing that you are here to help us!”

Mind, Body, And Soul: Recipients Learn About Tzu Chi’s Philosophies

Every recipient who came to the distribution site learned about The Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation’s Bamboo Bank initiative and how the love is gathered across the globe, eventually transforming into the very cash cards they had received. Countless individuals who got a Bamboo Bank and cash card repeatedly showed their gratitude. Elizabeth said: “The volunteers gave us a Bamboo Bank, and we will also start putting the small change from our daily life into it. Maybe one day, we can also give back to help others.”

Although everything in life has become extraordinarily complicated since the disaster, Tzu Chi USA’s volunteers offered a simple sense of compassion to survivors; their sincerity and attention let beneficiaries know that they would accompany them every step of the way on the journey towards rebuilding their lives.

Great disasters call for even greater love, and Tzu Chi USA is dedicated to delivering an abundance of just that to disaster areas across the globe. The Relief After Tornadoes campaign has received an anonymous pledge of $1 million in matching funding. By the end of March 2022, your donation will double in hope, strength, and companionship for individuals impacted by natural disasters. Thank you for helping us mend shattered lives and for your continued support in inspiring hope in those that need it more than ever.

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