“There was chaos after the mudslides. Many streets were covered by mud, sand and boulders. There was no way we could go back to see our house!” said Mrs. Chow (Jessica Tan, 42 years old) as she recalled the natural disaster that took place on 9 January 2018, fear seemed to have lingered on in her voice.
“We were only allowed to return home after many days. It was a painful sight. It is hard to describe how we felt back then. We lost everything we had. All our things had been buried under mud and debris. It was just unbearable!”
Houses destroyed by unpredictable natural disasters
At the end of the year 2017, South California, United States was hit by ‘Thomas Fire’, the largest wildfire in their history. The affected area was huge, and residents were evacuated from their homes for their own safety. It took the local government vast efforts to contain the burning. By then, large parts of the forest and fields had already been burned, leaving behind acres of bare land. Before the fire could be completely extinguished, heavy rains in January 2018 caused severe mudslides and destroyed many houses, resulting in a heavy loss of lives and property.
With the expectation to go home on the next day, Jessica Tan’s family who lives in the little town of Santa Barbara packed lightly and took refuge in a small hotel on the night before the disaster struck. But when they returned to the town, what greeted them were roads completely covered with mud, sand, and boulders. Only when they received a phone call and photos from their neighbours did they realise that their house had been destroyed and razed to the ground. There was no home to return to!
The four members of the Chow family were only permitted to return to their house several days later. Jessica Tan recalled the moment and said, “We lost everything we had. All our things had been buried under mud and rocks. It was just unbearable!”.
With their homes completely destroyed in the disaster, they had no choice but to move into a hotel for the time being. Eventually, they rented and settled down at a place. As a disaster-stricken family, they had to rebuild everything from scratch. “We had to buy every single item from something as small as a pot or a towel to the house itself and everything in it. It was a long road to recovery...”
Getting back on track after the disaster
In the aftermath of the disaster, many relief assistance organisations stationed themselves in Santa Barbara to provide humanitarian assistance to the victims. Among them were The Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency of the United States and Tzu Chi. Upon arriving at the relief centre, Jessica Tan was encouraged by the coordinator to approach Tzu Chi’s help desk and was warmly received by the volunteers there.
“Tzu Chi’s volunteers were very friendly when they handed me an eco-blanket and a cash card. I was thinking that this was exactly the kind of care I needed. They empathised with our situation and what we went through. I believe they understood the challenges we faced, and Tzu Chi's cash card came right on time to help us on our road to recovery.”
Jessica Tan said gratefully, “I was very surprised to see them. Santa Barbara is such a small town that we didn't expect Tzu Chi volunteers to travel so far south to help us. I am not only grateful for their assistance but very touched by what they did.”
Back then, Jessica’s son, Alex Chow, and her daughter, Victoria Chow were only 14 and 11 years old respectively. It must have been truly traumatic having to go through such huge disasters at that young age. Jessica Tan felt that it was important for her children to return to their school and friends as soon as possible and to resume a normal life.
It was a long and difficult road to recovery. With assistance from many parties and through their efforts, the Chow family tried to get their life back on track. Jessica Tan revealed that like many disaster victims, the whole family was suffering from the ‘post-disaster syndrome’. It is painful to look back at the torturing moments and hopefully, time will heal them. It has been three years since then, and she feels blessed that her family has settled down and the children have returned to normal study life.
An unforgettable kindness which led to another cycle of love
Three years after the disaster, Jessica Tan returned to Singapore with her two children in December 2020 to visit her mother. She told her family about the numerous disasters that took place years ago and shared her experience as a victim. Jessica Tan revealed that it took the family several years before they could talk about the experience without getting too emotional.
During their conversation, she mentioned about accepting Tzu Chi's emergency cash card and a grey eco blanket. Her younger brother, Nick Tan shared that when he drove past Tzu Chi’s Jing Si Hall at Pasir Ris, they decided to visit the place.
“When we faced difficulties, we received help from various organizations. We tried to thank everyone who had helped us including our friends and family. When I heard that Tzu Chi is also present in Singapore, I felt that the chance has come for us to thank them,” said Jessica Tan. On 11 April 2021, Jessica Tan visited Jing Si Hall together with her children, mother, and younger brother to make a donation to express their gratitude.
Volunteer Lim Chwee Lian who was on duty in Jing Si Hall on that day exclaimed that “this is a cycle of love and kindness and the best way to lead by example for the children.” During their chat, when Lim Chwee Lian asked Jessica Tan if her family could share their encounter and experience with Singaporeans through photos and simple narratives, Jessica Tan said that was her plan too.
Her daughter, Victoria Chow said, "I intend to write this article to share my family’s experience so as to raise people’s vigilance on natural disasters and to spread the message of Tzu Chi's love."
Natural disasters are ruthless but there is love on earth. Tzu Chi volunteers uphold the spirit of having compassion and kindness for all beings and put in their best effort to assist whoever they can reach out to. The Chow family will always be grateful for Tzu Chi’s help.
Destiny from afar grows from where you are
Jessica Tan shared that when the coordinator at the relief station encouraged her to seek help from Tzu Chi’s help desk, she hesitated as she had never heard of Tzu Chi and had no idea what they could do.
“To be honest, I knew nothing about Tzu Chi back then. I felt it should be easier to approach or seek help from some of the international non-governmental organizations I have heard of such as Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. I think it would be ideal to increase the public’s awareness of what Tzu Chi does.”
“Ever since we received the eco blanket from the volunteers, we have been using it every day. The blanket (pictured below) is always draped over the sofa in our living room. The temperature in South California is cooler than in Singapore, so it feels great to have the blanket over us when we sit on the sofa to watch television.”
The volunteers invited Jessica Tan and her family to Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre on 25 April to learn more about Tzu Chi. They also requested the family to share their post-disaster reflections and encouraged them to become Tzu Chi volunteers.
“We are very grateful to Tzu Chi. We certainly hope to do what we can to help others because very often and in many cases, it is not possible for one person to accomplish much,” said Jessica Tan affirmatively.
Victoria Chow has pictured the future in her mind where she shared, “My brother and I are very keen to start a Tzu Chi contact point in Santa Barbara and to set up a small club to facilitate changes in our environment. Tzu Chi has a weak presence in Santa Barbara, we can become its first seed and help to increase awareness of Tzu Chi here.”
Jessica and her kids have returned to the United States at the end of April to reunite with their family. Hopefully, Tzu Chi in Singapore will connect them with Tzu Chi in the United States so that more people in the small town will get to know Tzu Chi, and they will be able to raise the public’s awareness on environmental protection and engage in sustainable practices together. May the seeds of love and kindness take root and sprout from the land of Santa Barbara, the little town in South California.