Tzu Chi Volunteers Provide Flood Relief in Virginia’s Buchanan County

Greater Washington D.C.  |  August 8, 2022
Tzu Chi volunteers hold a disaster relief distribution in Buchanan County, Virginia, to aid flood survivors. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Written by: Wendy Tsai, Eric Tong, Chiu-Yueh Hung
Translated by: H.B. Qin
Edited by: Adriana DiBenedetto

The storm that hit western Virginia on the night of July 12, 2022, was swift and overwhelming. In just a few hours, homes were inundated, power outages were reported, and roads closed due to flooding and landslides. 

“It was almost like the sky just opened up, and it just would not stop raining,” expressed Denise McGeorge, Disaster Programs Director for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services. “We had an area that was flooded that has never flooded before. Quite a bit of the property that was here was not even in a flood zone.” Denise McGeorge further explained to volunteers that 91 homes in the county had been reported as destroyed, or had experienced major or minor damages, with many more being affected by the flood. 

Tzu Chi volunteers from the Greater Washington D.C. Regional Office mobilized quickly to visit impacted areas for disaster assessment, soon holding a relief distribution of cash cards and emergency relief supplies for 56 flood survivors.

Relief Begins in Buchanan County

Volunteers travel across states to begin assessment following the disaster. Photo/Chunmei Zhang
Surprise lights up the faces of flood survivors upon receiving soft eco-blankets from volunteers. Photo/Wendy Tsai

The Greater Washington D.C. Region first contacted the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) and the National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) to understand the demand for disaster relief. A total of 17 volunteers, consisting of five volunteers from the Raleigh Service Center in North Carolina, two volunteers from Richmond Service Center in Virginia, and ten volunteers from the Greater Washington D.C. Region, formed a team to carry out preparations, outline distribution plans, and organize supplies.

The disaster relief site in the rural Virginia county was approximately six and a half hours’ drive from Washington and Richmond, and about four and a half hours for volunteers from the two Service Centers in North Carolina. As the roads along the way were still pending repair, volunteers decided to head out early in the morning. While driving through the impacted areas, volunteers saw trees, furniture, vehicles, broken building materials on both sides of the road, and even houses whose roofs were still buried in the mud and soil.

When volunteers arrived at the resource center temporarily set up in a local high school, relief supplies were already stacked under the eaves at the school’s entrance. United Way U.S.A. and the Buchanan County Department of Social Services facilitated Tzu Chi’s disaster relief plan by helping consolidate a list of 68 affected households who requested assistance. They also helped Tzu Chi volunteers contact survivors by phone to provide distribution details.

Swept Away

Tommy (left), a flood survivor, offers to stay on site to help others with their paperwork. Photo/Chen Lee
A flood survivor named Brenda Charles shares a hug with Tzu Chi volunteers. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Tzu Chi volunteer Hank Chi is also a board member with the Virginia VOAD, and helped Tzu Chi connect with local partners. “Tzu Chi volunteers are grateful for the opportunity to come to this town to help the survivors through this difficult time,” said Hank Chi. “Local governments, United Way, and other emergency relief organizations were soon connected to cooperate and exchange information because of the active participation of Tzu Chi and community emergency relief organizations.”

Tommy was the first survivor to come to the distribution site, and greeted volunteer Chiu-Yueh Hung with a shy smile. When he recalled the experience of that night, his hands began to tremble. Chiu-Yueh Hung reached out to hold his hands as he tried again to describe the situation. His disbelief at the disaster was evident in his face and his words.

When Chiu-Yueh Hung gave Tommy a cash card and introduced the significance of Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank, tears of gratitude shone in his eyes. The cash card in his hand was indeed the love and care of people from all over the world who hoped to make a difference. After receiving the supplies, he offered to stay and help until the end of the distribution, taking a group photo alongside volunteers with a smile.

A flood survivor named Brenda Charles spoke with volunteers about the situation as well. “Everyone was asleep,” she explained. “So I went and knocked on the doors and said, ‘We’re getting flooded. Get up!’ And all the neighbors just came right out in the middle of the road and tried to help each other.” 

I had totes under my house, and they had all my baby’s pictures. [The flood] washed them away.

Brenda Charles, Flood Survivor

A Frightening Discovery

Volunteers offer Tzu Chi’s disaster relief cash cards to affected households and introduce the foundation’s philosophy of Great Love. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Denise McGeorge (middle), Disaster Programs Director for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, thanks Tzu Chi volunteers for their help. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Denise McGeorge, Disaster Programs Director for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services, accompanied three volunteers to the flood-affected areas for disaster assessment on July 23, introducing the situation and local households.  

Denise told volunteers about the experiences of several affected households. As the flood occurred late at night, many people were asleep, waking suddenly to the unexpected deluge. One couple she knew of told her that they’d heard a loud noise outside and thought something had happened on their next-door neighbor’s property. When the husband stepped out of bed, it was into a pool of water. He became even more aware of the seriousness of the situation after glancing out a window. With little time to do anything else, the flood broke through their home and poured into their room. 

The couple held onto a roof beam and prayed loudly until the water receded. After the flood, community members found that a layer of mud seemed to coat every surface, and destroyed homes and vehicles.  

“I was so happy to hear from Mr. Hank Chi when he reached out and let us know that he had some assistance that he would like to bring to Southwest Virginia, to the families that have been affected by the flood,” said Buchanan County Disaster Programs Director Denise McGeorge. “We’re so thankful for what this foundation is doing, and how they’re reaching out to people. And it doesn’t have to be just in the area that you’re used to being at or living in, but you’re reaching far beyond those walls. You’re reaching out to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, and our people are just overwhelmed at the graciousness of your foundation, and how you have been so kind. And your generosity is overwhelming, and we are so thankful.”

Tammy Horn (left) shares her experience with volunteers. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Volunteer Zhixing Chen (middle) explains the origin of Tzu Chi’s bamboo banks to survivors. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Tammy Horn and Roger Mitmay’s home was also severely impacted by the disaster. After learning of their situation, Tzu Chi volunteers set out to visit them to see how they could help. 

“At 7:00 that morning, we were able to make contact with our neighbors,” said Tammy. “They told us that our home and our car had washed off due to the rains. And everything was gone at that time. Everything we’ve worked really hard for all our lives was gone. It’s just like starting over new. Everything you’ve invested in, everything you’ve acquired all your life… And we’ve both worked really hard all our lives, and now we’re starting over. It’s gone, just washed away in twenty minutes.” 

Tammy is also worried and heartbroken because one of her dogs is still missing in the aftermath of the storm’s chaos. 

The Road to Relief & Recovery Continues

“Just now, a family of six came [to the assistance center]. Their house was severely damaged. I introduced them to Tzu Chi and the spirit of Tzu Chi’s bamboo bank, and they were very moved. When they learned that the cash card was $1,000, they couldn’t help crying,” Volunteer Zhixing Chen said, holding back tears as well. “Tzu Chi has done so many meaningful things, gathering the love of Tzu Chi volunteers all over the world to provide disaster relief and care for families affected by disasters. We must continue to work hard.”

When the disaster relief team returned to the hotel, they were warmly welcomed by Mark McCain, a member of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) who recognized Tzu Chi’s uniform immediately. He graciously greeted the volunteers, and explained that he had worked alongside Tzu Chi volunteers providing disaster relief in New York following 9/11. Meeting Tzu Chi volunteers again during another disaster relief operation made him feel a sense of relief. The volunteers invited him to participate in a virtual prayer organized by Tzu Chi at the hotel, to send forth their sincerest hopes for all those affected by disasters.

I had totes under my house, and they had all my baby’s pictures. [The flood] washed them away.

Brenda Charles, Flood Survivor
Mark McCain of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (second from left, front row) takes a group photo with the volunteers. Photo/Wendy Tsai

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