Delivering Warmth to Counter Tornado Destruction

A string of tornadoes tore across parts of America’s Midwest and South at the end of 2021, leaving behind war zone-like scenes. But some who had lost their homes to the disaster received unexpected gifts just in time for Christmas, reminding them of the power of love during the blessed season.

A community in Bowling Green, Kentucky, was cut in half by a tornado in December 2021. Debris lay everywhere afterwards.

More than 30 tornadoes hit America’s Midwest and South on December 10 and 11, 2021, resulting in catastrophic damage. One of the tornadoes traveled over more than 300 kilometers (186 miles), sweeping across many areas in the state of Kentucky. Many people recalled hearing tornado warning sirens, but it was impossible to take shelter in time. Dystain Homess, a resident of Mayfield, Kentucky, spoke of the havoc wrought by the disaster: “People lost their homes, people lost their jobs, people lost their lives. I just never thought this would happen to my little town—all that history gone.”

Tornadoes typically occur in the U.S. Midwest in April and May. It was unusual for such violent twisters to hit in December. Buildings collapsed and fires broke out, killing dozens of people. Tzu Chi sprang into action to counter the destruction. They worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross to deliver aid to three states. All told, 455 families benefited. In addition to a cash card loaded with a thousand U.S. dollars for each household, care packages containing blankets, scarves, winter hats, and other items were given out.

Todd Alcott is the mayor of Bowling Green, Kentucky, the worst-hit state. He said after learning of the monetary aid Tzu Chi was bringing to his city: “You know, a thousand dollars can mean buying a meal, buying a hotel room, giving them some respite…. I’m grateful for the families because I know that this will mean something to them, and we’re so appreciative for your gift.”

Volunteers from the states of Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois raced against time to distribute the foundation’s aid to affected families before Christmas. They successfully pulled off the mission—the last distribution was completed on December 24. Volunteers spent Christmas Eve afterward in a hotel. Though they couldn’t spend the special time with their family, their hearts were warmed to have brought their best wishes to those in need.


Praying for the Deceased

After a series of unseasonably powerful tornadoes hit parts of the U.S. Midwest and South in late 2021, Tzu Chi volunteers rushed to affected areas to assess conditions. Distributions were launched soon afterwards. In photo 1, volunteers pray for the deceased in the town of Mayfield, Kentucky, one of the hardest-hit communities. Li You-da

Temperatures were low in the aftermath of the tornadoes, with power outages adding to the plight of survivors. Tzu Chi combined forces with the American Red Cross and organized six distributions to help victims through the challenging time. In photo 2, a survivor at a Tzu Chi distribution held in Bowling Green, Kentucky, tearfully recalls that scary time when the disaster hit. In photo 3, an aid recipient deposits money into a Tzu Chi coin bank at a distribution venue in Mayfield, Kentucky, to help other needy people and continue the cycle of love. Cash cards and other relief items from the foundation (photo 4) helped lighten the burdens of affected families on their way to recovery.


Impermanence Strikes Again

Narrated by Wei Jin-quan

Interviewed and compiled by Liao Zhe-min

Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting

I listened intently to tornado victims as they related their frightening experiences. I wanted them to know that there were people in the world who cared about them.

I was one of the Tzu Chi volunteers who helped carry out our foundation’s relief work after a devastating tornado clobbered Joplin, Missouri, the United States, in May 2011. That was how I came to witness the mayhem inflicted by an EF5-rated tornado. (Tornadoes range from 0 to 5, with 5s being the most powerful, on the Enhanced Fujita scale, more commonly referred to as the EF-Scale.) Though parts of Joplin survived untouched, other parts were completely destroyed. In one area of town, almost no building on a six-mile stretch of road was spared from the twister. Every structure was either completely or partially demolished.

After what I saw in Joplin, I began to take immediate action whenever I heard tornado sirens. I feared I’d turn out to be one of those struck down if I ignored the warning. Life is unpredictable. Though the houses on one side of town might be okay, those on the other side might be wrecked. We can’t be too careful.

On the night of December 10, 2021, tornado warnings sounded again and again where I live in southern Illinois. I took nothing for granted, and immediately took precautions. Fortunately, my area escaped unscathed. However, just eight kilometers (five miles) from my home, an Amazon warehouse was hit hard and badly damaged.

People described the devastation caused by the tornado outbreak this time like something you would see in a war zone. No matter if they were wooden or brick, all structures gave way as easily as if they had been houses of cards. What distinguished the disaster this time from those that had struck before was not the intensity but the large number of tornadoes that had formed. It resulted in many areas being hit. The damage caused was concentrated in densely populated areas, exacerbating the devastation.

My fellow volunteers and I arrived in various disaster areas within five days of the tornado disaster to assess damage, planning to get our aid to victims by Christmas. Many survivors had registered their damage and needs with the Red Cross, so we worked with the organization again to deliver aid.

Love had poured into affected cities and towns. Wherever we visited we saw charity organizations offering water, dry food, or even hot meals to those in need. We decided to focus our aid on those whose houses had been completely destroyed or were no longer habitable. We would provide each beneficiary family with a US$1,000 cash card, items to keep them warm, and other necessities. The most important item we provided was the cash card, which allowed the survivors to buy things they needed. Some, for example, had lost their eyeglasses or dentures in the disaster. Our financial assistance could help cover some of their urgent needs.

In Kentucky, I ran into a Red Cross volunteer with whom I had worked several times before in relief operations. He was also a local resident. I told him Tzu Chi was distributing US$1,000 cash cards to affected families and that Master Cheng Yen had instructed us to get the aid to the families by December 24 to help them have a better Christmas. Hearing this, he just stared in amazement at me. Then, with tears in his eyes, he said he was really impressed by Tzu Chi’s thoughtfulness, by how we paid attention to such details.

We put ourselves in the shoes of the needy when we deliver aid. We want the needy to feel our care and our sincere desire to help them in a timely and effective manner.

A touching experience every time

One of the places we visited during our relief mission this time was an Amish community in Mayfield, Kentucky. People there seemed cut off from the outside world and lived very simply. Due to their distrust of the outside world, they didn’t accept any offers for help after the disaster, even though their community had been hit hard.

Our team was lucky to know people who could connect us with the community. When we arrived and explained our intentions to help them with necessities and cash cards, they immediately asked, “Are those credit cards? We don’t want them!” Our volunteers quickly clarified by saying that we were not offering credit cards, but gift cards, and explained that they could use the money stored on the cards to buy things they needed. They eventually accepted our help, but still weren’t sure where to use the cards. Our volunteers suggested: “You can go buy building materials for the reconstruction of your houses.”

Because the coronavirus pandemic was still going strong in the United States, we knew the importance of taking precautions against the virus during our relief mission. Our Chicago team had prepared face masks designed to filter out particulate matter in the air for all the participating volunteers. They also distributed hand sanitizer to every one of us. In addition, we performed rapid COVID-19 testing on ourselves every morning; plastic dividers were installed on every table in a distribution venue, and volunteers put on gloves before handling paperwork. Such precautions ensured our safety as we served on the front lines.

As we gave out cash cards and necessities, we also listened to people share their stories with us. A mother came with a little girl. She choked up when she told us about that fateful day. She had held her little son in her arms to protect him that day, but when the tornado hit, their roof caved in, killing him on the spot.

A candle factory in Mayfield had suffered heavy casualties. Some employees from the factory showed up in a distribution to receive our aid. Among them was a tall, handsome young man. He arrived looking spiritless, as if all life had been drained out of him. I went up to him and asked if he was doing okay. He told me his fiancée had worked in the factory on that fateful day too but was sadly killed. He finished his statement in a few short words. I could see how forlorn and sad he was.

Other volunteers came to us and began comforting him. Then we listened quietly as he opened up more to us. Later, when he had received his aid and was leaving, I saw that he no longer looked as depressed as when he had first arrived. He must have felt better after letting out some of his pent-up grief. Sometimes the best we can do is offer a patient ear and be there for them. Sometimes all they need is a shoulder to lean on.

It is a touching experience whenever we volunteer in a relief operation on the front lines. We’ve learned that people need more than just help with money and supplies after they are hit by misfortune—they need a patient listening ear too. It may be because they find hope in that patient ear, because it makes them feel cared for. After releasing their emotions to us, they experience a shift away from their negative thoughts and find strength to keep going. Love, care, and a patient listening ear are the best gifts we can offer.

A volunteer serves tornado victims at a distribution in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Yue Ma


March 2022