Tzu Chi Volunteers Prepare for Hurricane Ian Relief in Florida

Southern  |  October 10, 2022
Angelica Ramon remains optimistic in the midst of disaster recovery efforts. Photo/Qihua Luo

Written by: Qihua Luo
Translated by: H.B. Qin
Edited by: Adriana DiBenedetto

On October 5, 2022, the State of Florida and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up a Disaster Recovery Center (DRC) in Lee County to provide Hurricane Ian survivors with information from Florida agencies, FEMA, and the U.S. Small Business Administration — so they may apply for assistance in various areas. The Tzu Chi team arrived at the DRC early that morning, letting survivors know about the help Tzu Chi provides, allowing Tzu Chi to gather the needs of survivors, and to implement plans developed after several assessments.

A map of the disaster assessment completed on October 9. Photo/Google Maps
Roger Mercado (right), Director of Lee County Human and Veteran Services, speaks with Tzu Chi Southern Region Executive Director Zhenxiong Luo (middle) and volunteer Shuyi Bai (left). Photo/Fan Ting

Through the careful help of DRC staff, the assessment team contacted Roger Mercado, Director of Lee County Human and Veteran Services and head of the Lee County DRC. Mr. Mercado thanked Tzu Chi from the bottom of his heart for coming and immediately arranged for the team to have a workstation in the center. Tzu Chi Southern Region acted quickly to coordinate the arrangements, linked the online and offline channels, and planned to officially station at the DRC early the following morning, October 10.

The busy DRC in Lee County, Florida, is filled with relief supplies for Hurricane Ian survivors. Photo/Qihua Luo

Volunteers Visit Florida’s Cape Coral

While speaking with survivors who came to the DRC for information, the volunteers learned that the nearby Cape Coral neighborhood was badly hit. Most of the homes there were built in the 1970s, and the flooding caused by the hurricane had swamped the entire neighborhood. When the volunteers arrived, the roadside was littered with discarded items that the flooding had soaked through. Much of the initial cleanup effort for survivors’ homes seemed to have been completed, as several trucks now worked on repairing roofs and exteriors.

As volunteers approached Mark Mueller’s house, he invited them in to check out the interiors. Outside the house, there was a layer of mud left by the flood water; inside the house, some items were placed high up in an effort to save them. He told the volunteers that the neighborhood had been alerted before the flooding, and local residents had placed their belongings up high. They also took shelter in advance, so there was not as much damage. What they needed at the moment was to clean up and repair the house quickly as mold would begin to grow. They are deeply disappointed; with the frequency of disasters in recent years, insurance premiums have become more and more expensive, and insurance companies have been refraining from action, expressed community members. Many people in the neighborhood do not have insurance coverage, and they are worried about the cost of the upcoming restorations. 

As Long as We Are Together in Caloosa Mobile Home Community

Homes in Caloosa Mobile Home Community located in North Fort Myers, FL, were severely damaged, and the streets in the community are lined with flood-damaged items. Some organizations have started aid efforts. Photo/Qihua Luo

Caloosa Mobile Home Community is a manufactured home community located in North Fort Myers, Florida, where many locals work at the nearby beaches. The hurricane not only battered the beach, but also cut off many residents’ sources of income. The entire neighborhood is home to about 500 people, many of whom are children.

Among the organizations readying to provide aid in the community were Samaritan’s Purse, Midwest Food Bank, and Iglesia Casa De Su Presencia from Midland County, Texas.

Samaritan’s Purse staff introduces volunteers to Angelica Ramon, who knows the community and its residents well. Photo/Qihua Luo
Angelica Ramon shows the disaster assessment team around the neighborhood. Photo/Qihua Luo
David Cole’s house was damaged when a tree fell and crushed the foundation, tilting the entire house to the right. David is living temporarily in a tent. Photo/Qihua Luo

The staff of Samaritan’s Purse told volunteers that they came chiefly to help survivors repair their roofs, and helped 17 families in the last two days. They also introduced Tzu Chi volunteers to a community member named Angelica Ramon, who knows the community and its residents well.

Community residents invite the assessment team in to check out the house. Photo/Qihua Luo

As Angelica Ramon guided volunteers through the neighborhood, local community residents greeted volunteers warmly as the team proceeded — despite how every household in the area was going through such a difficult time. Their homes have been severely damaged, as well as their furniture and other possessions. Many people had nowhere else to go but to sleep in their damaged homes, yet smiles could be seen on many faces. Several families invited volunteers to see their homes, describing the damage the hurricane caused. Locals have also been helping one another in the neighborhood.

Yadira was upset about the damage, but she could imagine that her mother was even more upset. Photo/Qihua Luo

The volunteers soon met with Yadira Ortiz, whose home had colorful dresses hanging out front. Yadira lives with her mother, grandmother, and young siblings. She told the volunteers that on the day of the flood, there had been no warning in her neighborhood; the water rushed in through the front door and was suddenly knee-deep. They escaped through the window. She carried a dog in one hand and held onto her grandmother. Her mother held her sister in one hand and her brother in the other as they trudged through the flood water, which eventually rose to their armpits. By the time the family reached the second floor of a small building, the water, too, was approaching the second floor. When they returned home the next day, there was nothing left in the house.

When volunteers asked her what she needed most, she pointed to the two flood-damaged cars behind her. She and her mother needed to go to work, and commuting without a car had become very difficult. When asked if they ever wanted to move out of the neighborhood, she said that as a single-parent household, although she had a good job at the hospital, their financial burden was still very heavy. They were afraid that if they moved, they might lose their jobs and wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, so they had no plans to move at the moment.

My mom says that as long as our whole family is still together, everything will get better and better.

Yadira Ortiz, Survivor
Tzu Chi volunteers speak with Hurricane Ian survivors. Photo/Qihua Luo
A child’s smile heals everything. A youngster sits alone on the porch and waves goodbye to the volunteers. Photo/Qihua Luo

Angelica Ramon told volunteers that they were lucky to receive a lot of food on the second day after the disaster, but what they need most now are fundamentals like ovens, refrigerators, and toilets. In addition, there are many school-age children in the neighborhood, and they are in urgent need of learning tools. 

The Tzu Chi assessment team instantly determined to invite Angelica Ramon’s continued help in collecting information from families within the next week, so volunteers can learn how best to help. By that time, Tzu Chi hopes to return with the supplies they need.

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