‘We don’t wait for things to happen’

May 24, 2006

Article published May 23, 2006
 'We don't wait for things to happen' Vietnamese community wastes no time rebuilding their lives after Katrina


wenty 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 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 the Rev. Vien Nguyen, pastor of the church.

Nguyen estimates that 4,000 Vietnamese live within one mile 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 said. The steady rate of return has compelled Nguyen to add a third church service 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.

He said the community's relative success at rebuilding has 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.

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. The area is sometimes identified as Village de L'Est, the name of a housing subdivision in the neighborhood.

Pooling resources has 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.

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

Kerry said some of the Vietnamese business owners with whom he spoke told him their personal funds were running out. "They still need additional assistance," the senator said.

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 back yard 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, belonging to Kinh Van Nguyen.

He estimated that when he reopened his store 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 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 medicines and 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 Kinh Van Nguyen, 40.

But the situation is still far from perfect. Community leaders say they feel their efforts to bring people home are being stymied by the city's 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 Mallett, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, said, "The chances of health hazards are very, very slim."

—— End of article


Los Angeles Times

One Response to “‘We don’t wait for things to happen’”

  1. What an interesting view on this topic. I am happy you shared your ideas and I find myself agreeing. I appreciate your clear writing style and the effort you have put into this article. Many thanks for the fine work and good luck with the site, I look forward to future updates.

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