Text and photo by Shi Jin-yu
Translated by Tang Yau-yang
The 9/18 quake damaged his home and disrupted his water supply. Tzu Chi volunteers put in nearly a hundred shifts in six days and restored his home.
“Unbelievable!” said Mr. Wei, 80. “I didn’t expect anyone to help, but as it turned out, not only did you come to help, but you did a better job than I had expected. Its quality is better than I could have imagined! Words can’t begin to express how touched I am!”
An earthquake struck eastern Taiwan on the afternoon of September 18, damaging Mr. Wei’s home and shaking him out of his daily routine. Many things in his house fell, his water pipes burst, and part of a brick wall on one side of his yard collapsed. “The most painful thing is the broken water pipes,” he said. “I have no water to use.”
Mr. Wei lives in the Taichang neighborhood in Yuli, Hualien County. His wife works in Taipei, and their two children are in college out of town. He can’t get around freely because of his age and a weakness in his right leg, so after the quake he could only fetch a little water from a neighbor to brush his teeth and wash his face. He used the toilet at the train station to relieve himself and went to Antong Hot Spring to take a shower. To keep himself hydrated, he drank bottled water. After seven days of living this way, the administrators of his community got someone to connect plastic water pipes for him to bring water back to his house. But the plastic pipes were just a temporary solution; he needed something more permanent. Luckily, a team of Tzu Chi volunteers who were professionals went to his house to solve his water and other problems once and for all.
A professional team in sync
On the afternoon of October 3, eight volunteers came to Mr. Wei’s house to survey the damage. They found broken water pipes, a collapsed wall in the yard, cracked floor tiles in the dining room and kitchen, and a damaged water tank. They decided to repair them according to Mr. Wei’s needs.
During their visit, they noticed a piece of wood placed under a mat at the foot of the stairs leading up to the second floor. It turns out that the starter step—the first riser of the staircase—was as high as 30 centimeters (12 inches), making it hard for Mr. Wei to take that first step upstairs. The elderly man had created his makeshift solution to make that first step easier. The volunteers decided to add a step to the staircase to make it easier and safer for him to use the stairs.
The next day, more than a dozen volunteers started the repair work. First, they cleared fallen leaves from the yard and disposed of some roof tiles Mr. Wei said he wouldn’t need any more. Lin Qiu-ben (林秋本), a seasoned electrician and plumber, worked together with his son, Lin Yu-xun (林鈺勛), to measure the distance from the wall in the yard all the way up to the water tank at the top of the house.
It is more than 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the Lins’ home in Taichung to Yuli. Lin Qiu-ben had originally planned to come alone for the repair project, but his son didn’t feel comfortable with his father driving such a long distance by himself, so he decided to accompany him.
Yu-xun, just 22, has been working with his father for five years, and he is accustomed to working quickly and professionally. He found that the volunteers worked relatively inefficiently. He said, “When we arrived at the site, we had to wait on the materials for the job, and half a day was gone just like that.” However, he soon discovered that the volunteers made up for their less-than-ideal efficiency with a large number of workers. If he or his father needed anything, a volunteer would be around to fetch it for them, saving them time. Lin Yu-xun felt a great sense of respect for the volunteers, hard at work and sweating profusely in the sweltering heat.
Seeing the volunteers working in the yard, a neighbor standing on the third floor of her home said to them through a window, “Thank you for helping Mr. Wei repair his house.” She said that after the earthquake, she had seen Wei twice climb up an old wooden ladder to the top floor to inspect the water tank. That worried her greatly, so she was relieved the volunteers were now fixing things for him.
Other volunteers inside the house were getting ready to remove the damaged floor tiles. They had bought a large piece of plastic sheet beforehand, and after cutting it to size, covered the things in the kitchen, such as utensils and cabinets, to keep them clean and dust free while they worked. They also sealed the opening to the stairwell that led to the second floor to prevent dust from getting upstairs. Once they had sealed and covered everything, they used power tools to remove the damaged floor tiles. Their work was ear-piercing and very dusty, but the volunteers were so focused on the tasks at hand they seemed oblivious.
Mr. Wei watched the volunteers work and took pictures to send to his wife, who reminded him: “Remember to buy some snacks for the volunteers.” He told her in response, “They brought their own. The volunteers work in three teams—one team does the repair work, another cleans up, and the other keeps up with the supply. They are like a well-organized army. I don’t know where I can be of help to them.”
In fact, Mr. Wei had already bought two packs of bottled water for the volunteers. When he noticed that the volunteers had also brought their own water, he quickly said to them, “You must drink the water I have here.” The volunteers couldn’t bear to turn him down, so they gladly accepted his hospitality.
After the quake, only air emerged from the faucet in Mr. Wei’s bathroom. Lin Qiu-ben cleaned the filter and took care of it in no time. Now water flows out of the faucet like rapids after a good rain.
Nobody is idle
The volunteers weren’t idle for a moment, not even while waiting for the materials to arrive. They tried to make themselves useful, looking for other work to do, while they waited.
The trees on either side of the yard were resplendent with luxuriant foliage, but they were interfering with the power line and hanging over the sheet metal roof of the next house. After gaining permission from Wei, volunteers trimmed down the trees. The ditch by the flowerbed was originally covered with wooden planks. Volunteers brought cement boards that others no longer needed and laid them over the planks. Mr. Wei said with satisfaction, “The wooden planks were beginning to rot, giving a little when I walked on them. Now I feel safe.”
Outside the wall at the yard were some plants, but they were being overtaken by overgrown weeds. Volunteers eradicated the weeds and used bricks to border the flowers and other plants, turning it into a beautiful, eye-catching flowerbed. They also cleaned up the area by the roadside. Volunteer Zhou Ming-zhong (周明鐘), a carpenter, even repaired three chairs while the materials were being readied. Mr. Wei said happily: “Now our whole family can sit comfortably in the chairs and have nice chats again!”
The water tank on the top floor had been dented, and the metal frame supporting the water tank had also been bent out of shape. Sheet metal technicians Xu Shu-lan (徐樹蘭) and Zeng Ming-song (曾明松) worked together to repair the tank and metal frame. While they were working on the top floor, they had nothing overhead to shade them from the sun, so the two sweated profusely and were soon soaked. Xu, 74, took out from his pocket a piece of tissue paper, created two makeshift ear plugs, and stuffed them into his ears. Then he picked up a wrench and crawled into the water tank, where he tapped out and smoothed the dented area. His work made sounds like a giant drum being beaten.
The public water system does not extend to Mr. Wei’s neighborhood, so Wei and his neighbors had been using mountain spring water. Consequently, thick sludge had accumulated in Wei’s water tank. The two volunteers dumped the muddy water out of the water tank. Then Xu went back in with a bamboo broom to clean up the inside before the two of them righted the water tank.
After returning the water tank to its proper position, they discovered that the connection between the tank outlet and the pipeline to the house was leaking. Zeng went into the water tank, and the two, one inside and the other outside, worked together to secure the connection. Their clothes were all wet and filthy by that time. When they were finally done with everything, they took photos for Mr. Wei to check. He said after careful inspection: “You guys fixed it very well.” His approval made their day after an afternoon’s hard work.
While Xu and Zeng were repairing the water tank at the top of the house, Lin Qiu-ben and his son were working to connect the intake pipes to the tank and the plumbing to the rest of the house. When they were done, Lin asked his son to go downstairs to open the inflowing water pipe. As soon as the pipe was opened, a clattering sound came out of the water tank. Mr. Wei was standing on the third-floor balcony, watching them work. Lin asked Wei, “Can you hear the sound of water entering?” Mr. Wei said, “Yes! The water tank is fixed, and you replaced my buried pipelines with above-ground pipes. I’ll never have a problem locating plumbing issues again!” Soon it was five o’clock in the afternoon, and the volunteers were scheduled to call it a day, but Lin Qiu-ben was still dealing with some water and electricity problems in the two bathrooms. Fortunately, with his expertise and experience, he soon resolved the issues without incident.
The floor tiles in Mr. Wei’s dining room and kitchen were badly cracked. Volunteers worked together to remove the damaged tiles and install new ones. Yang Kai-cheng
It’s like Chinese New Year
On the fourth day of the repair project, Hsu Chen-wei (徐榛蔚), the magistrate of Hualien County, stopped by to have a first-hand look at the repair project. Mr. Wei told the magistrate that the Tzu Chi volunteers had done a great job putting his house back in shape. He said that when they were working on the wall in the yard, they had even taken the time to clean out a ditch by his house that had been clogged by mud. “They do everything very well,” he said. “My property has had a complete makeover.”
The magistrate entered his house and saw the bright floor tiles in the dining room. She said to Mr. Wei, “They look brand-new! You’re going to have a good Chinese New Year.” Mr. Wei said with a smile, “I feel like I’m already celebrating the New Year.”
That afternoon, an in-home helper came to Wei’s house for a scheduled visit to help the older man with his housework. As soon as she walked through the door, she said in surprise, “Did I enter the wrong house? It’s so beautiful! What happened?” She couldn’t help but give the work a thumbs up after learning that the makeover was due to the volunteers who had come to repair the damage after the earthquake.
On October 8, volunteers grouted the tiles. Pan Sheng (潘勝), who had nearly 50 years’ experience laying tiles, had had spinal surgery at the beginning of the year. He had thought that there wouldn’t be many professional tile layer volunteers who would be participating in the repair project, so he told himself he had to come and do as much as he could. When his back got sore from squatting for too long, he’d stand up to rest.
Volunteers first walked into Mr. Wei’s house for a preliminary damage survey on October 3. After they worked close to a hundred shifts, all the earthquake damage to the house had been repaired. October 8 was their last day at Wei’s house. When they were getting ready to leave at the end of the project, Mr. Wei gave them an open invitation: “If you ever come to Yuli, you must come to stay at my house. I have reserved five rooms for you.”
On their way back to central Taiwan, where the volunteers lived, Gan Qing-wen (甘清文), the coordinator for the volunteer team, received a message from Mr. Wei. A condensed version of his message read: “On September 18, the wall fell, the floor cracked, the water tank collapsed, and an old man was lost and helpless. Volunteers in blue and white uniforms descended on my house, helping me the best they could. My house was reborn with their work. Their righteous acts frequently choked me up.”
In this short but powerful message, Mr. Wei provided the best testimony to the mindfulness and impact of these dedicated volunteers.