A Community Wastes No Time Starting Over

May 16, 2006

A predominantly Vietnamese American neighborhood has become a model of recovery due to its residents' initiative.

By Ann M. Simmons, Times Staff Writer
May 15, 2006

 

NEW ORLEANS — Twenty days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Ken Pham started gutting, tiling and repairing the roof of his flood-damaged home in New Orleans East.

With his family safely ensconced in an apartment in Baton Rouge, Pham slept in his sodden house on a leather sofa he salvaged from the street. Working most days and into the night — with help from friends — Pham has almost managed to restore the 1,800-square-foot, four-bedroom home where he has lived for 22 years. When his insurance money ran out, he used his savings.

 

His determination to rebuild is simple.

"I'm no longer in Vietnam. This is my home now," Pham said as he stood on the small porch and gestured inside.

When pressed on why he came back, the longtime shrimper began to cry. "There is a very close relationship in this community," he said. "That's why I returned."

Pham's passion is shared by most who live in this predominantly Vietnamese American enclave, where rows of new roofs are interspersed with blue tarps, and neatly manicured lawns with primped flowerbeds contrast with piles of trash and storm debris that litter the public median strips.

In the post-Katrina world of uncertainty and inconsistent city services and utilities, Vietnamese Americans here have become models of self-help and recovery. About 1,500 of the neighborhood's 2,500 members of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church have permanently returned, according to Father Vien Nguyen, pastor of the church, which is the community's anchor.

Nguyen estimates that 4,000 Vietnamese live within a one-mile radius of the church, and the majority of their homes have been gutted. Of the estimated 50 Vietnamese-owned businesses in the area, 45 are up and running, the pastor added. The steady rate of return has compelled Nguyen to add a third church service on Sundays.

About 8,000 to 10,000 Vietnamese lived in New Orleans East before Katrina, Nguyen said, with 20,000 to 25,000 in the greater New Orleans area. That is a fraction of the more than a quarter-million Vietnamese who live in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties.

Nguyen said that the community's relative success at rebuilding had been due to a combination of factors. This section of the city got 4 feet or less of flooding, compared with the 8 feet or more that swallowed other areas. Nguyen's church helped returnees find temporary shelter and provisions while they repaired their homes.

And the community shares a history of starting over. Many residents here have roots in three villages in northern Vietnam, Nguyen said. Their relatives migrated south as a group in the early 1950s, and after the communists took over in the south in 1975, fled to America.

Thousands were resettled in New Orleans East with the help of the Catholic Church and due to the availability of low-income housing here. The Vietnamese themselves often refer to the neighborhood as Versailles, after an apartment complex many of the original refugees moved into, but the area is sometimes identified as Village de l'Est, the name of a housing subdivision in the neighborhood.

Pooling resources has always enabled the Vietnamese to provide financial assistance to one another; such sharing became crucial after Katrina.

"We work together as a community, so when we come back and there are others who need help, we are willing to help," said Nguyen, adding that there was never a doubt that the people of the neighborhood would return. "The question was only, when?"

Nguyen said Vietnamese men are typically competent handymen, and there are skilled laborers among them. Many have been able to gut their own homes, repair their own roofs and do electrical wiring.

Other community members who own small businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores have ensured that consumer goods and services are available as people return and rebuild.

Other storm-damaged communities have the determination to return and rebuild, leaders from other neighborhoods said. How successful they are has to do with the amount of flooding suffered in a particular area, the number of displaced residents, and the availability of basic services and utilities.

In large parts of the city's Lower 9th Ward, for example, electrical power has not been restored. Residents have been advised against even bathing in the water in some neighborhoods.

On a recent tour of New Orleans East, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) commended the Vietnamese community's progress in rebuilding as "exemplary," but said it was "unconscionable" that residents and business owners had to tackle so much themselves, without adequate government assistance.

Kerry said that some of the Vietnamese business owners he spoke to told him their personal funds were running out. "They still need additional assistance," the senator said in an interview.

Phuong Thi Nguyen, 77, returned four months ago after her son finished gutting, painting and tiling the four-bedroom house where she has lived since 1984. The family didn't need a trailer. They lived in their makeshift kitchen until the pounding of hammers and buzz of chain saws fell silent.

As she stood in a backyard flush with watercress and mustard greens, she spoke of the joy of being home from her temporary refuge in Austin, Texas.

"In the place where I was, there wasn't any Vietnamese family. I couldn't go anywhere. I felt imprisoned," said Phuong Thi Nguyen as she clutched a traditional cone-shaped non la hat. "Now I can attend church at my leisure."

Two nearby commercial strips boast the resurgence of beauty salons, grocery stores, video rental shops, and at least one pharmacy that belongs to Kinh Van Nguyen.

He estimated that when he reopened his store on Dec. 5, he was the only pharmacist within a 30-mile radius. His business suffered little water damage, but looters stole about $75,000 worth of goods, and the lack of air-conditioning when the power went out destroyed much of his stock.

Thieves also ravaged his mother-in-law's convenience store next door. So Nguyen knocked down the wall between the two establishments, turning the businesses into a joint venture selling pharmaceuticals along with rubber sandals, hats, blankets, kitchen supplies and fashion jewelry.

"I guess the Vietnamese community … we don't wait for things to happen. We make them happen," said Nguyen, 40.

But the situation is still far from perfect. Community leaders feel their efforts to bring people home are being stymied by the city's recent decision to place a landfill for Katrina debris about a mile from the subdivision of Village de l'Est.

Residents fear that the dump will pollute the air and contaminate waterways, alongside which they have planted vegetable gardens.

While acknowledging the concern, Rodney B. Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said, "The chances of health hazards are very, very slim."

Last month, a U.S. District Court judge rejected a motion for the landfill to be closed. But on Tuesday, the Louisiana Senate's Environmental Quality Committee approved a bill that would require the state to determine whether the material could be placed at existing city dumps.

Wednesday, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced the suspension of all dumping in the landfill for 72 hours, after a meeting with community members. "During this suspension time a team of joint experts will test the debris materials to make sure that it is not toxic," Nagin said. "If reports show that this material is toxic, we will shut it down."

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