Life in the South Bay after Katrina

June 12, 2006


By Connie Skipitares and HongDao Nguyen
Mercury News

Half a continent from his home in Buras, La., Nam Nguyen is struggling to start over. He misses his old friends and the afternoons spent after they hauled in the day's fishing catch — a life taken from him by Hurricane Katrina.

Today he sits in a sparsely furnished apartment amid a neighborhood of Vietnamese emigres in San Jose, with very little but the chatter from a small portable radio to keep him company.

“There are some Vietnamese people in my apartment building,'' the quiet 56-year-old disabled man said through an interpreter recently, “but they're all busy with work. You meet people and doors slam shut. No one looks at anyone.''

The isolation Nguyen feels and the culture shock he suffers are common among the 3,000 evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi who settled in the Bay Area. Today, the 400 or so who remain in Santa Clara County are having mixed success finding their way.

Some, such as Charles Emery of San Jose and Lindell Slater of East Palo Alto, embrace the change and hope to stay.

Many, however, are like Nguyen — grappling with loneliness, trying to find jobs and cope with the region's sky-high cost of living.

Those daunting factors contributed to the exodus of some 8,000 people — Bay Area hurricane evacuees who returned to the Gulf Coast or scattered to other states or to California's less-expensive Central Valley.

“Most of them had never left their parish, let alone New Orleans or Louisiana,'' said Tim Quigley, who heads the Volunteer Center of Silicon Valley and chairs a broad committee assisting evacuees. “To be beamed into Oz was a trauma upon a trauma.''

About 60 percent of the evacuees, say county officials, are African-American. Thirty-two percent are Vietnamese-American.

Although many feel like they're living on another planet, some are managing well and forging new and productive lives.

Slater, a 25-year-old former bottled-water salesman from New Orleans, hopes to make the Bay Area his permanent home. He doesn't want to think about going back, now that he has settled in East Palo Alto with his wife, Amber, and 2-year-old daughter Liniah.

“I always wanted to come to California. I thought it was the land of opportunity,'' he said. “It seemed like a great place to raise a family.''

Last fall, while staying in a shelter in Texas, Slater met a volunteer from Mountain View who drove him and two other evacuees back to California to start a new life. At first, he landed a job with the same water company he'd worked for in New Orleans and, with help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, found a two-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto.

Slater isn't sure he can last. “The rent is killing me,'' he said. “I'm giving myself 12 months to make it here.''

He recently lost his job, but he remains optimistic that something else will turn up, largely because he's young and sees California as a chance to start all over.

“I like the way of life here,'' he said. “The community is cleaner, you feel safer and you don't have five murders a day like you do in New Orleans.''

Nguyen's isolation is further complicated by vision problems and a bad leg — both injuries from the Vietnam War. The disabilities force him to stay close to home. He can't see well enough to cross the street to a big Vietnamese market and other nearby shops that he would like to visit. Back home, his friends helped him shop and run errands.

When he turns on his radio, he listens to a Vietnamese news station. “It eases the sadness,'' he said.

Last fall, Katrina, which killed 2,000 people and left most of the New Orleans area under water, tore apart Nguyen's modest trailer and destroyed all his belongings, leaving him nowhere to go. He took a bus to Michigan, but it was too cold. So he bought a one-way ticket and flew to San Jose to join a brother.

Now he's on his own, in a government-subsidized apartment near McLaughlin Avenue and Story Road. It is simply furnished with items donated by volunteer groups — a couch, bed and wooden dining chairs. Whether he's happy or not, this is home. Nguyen no long entertains thoughts of going back to Louisiana.

“There is no one there anymore,'' he said. “It's been destroyed and my friends have scattered. I'll live a few more years and die anyway, because where else am I going to go?''

Emery and his family from New Orleans came to San Jose because a relative lives here. The 39-year-old restaurant owner and caterer left behind his ravaged home and restaurant and a successful catering business and hopes to start over. Since he, his fiancee, their children and his niece arrived in September, he's taken on catering jobs, doing birthday parties, weddings and other special events. He hopes to build a catering business and some day open a Cajun-soul food restaurant here.

“I'm homesick, but it's hard to think of going back,'' said Emery, who lives with his fiancee and their children in a pleasant ranch-style home near McLaughlin Avenue.

Emery and his fiancee, Simone Barabino, 36, evacuated New Orleans before Katrina struck. A day later, they returned to find their home intact, but it soon was overtaken by floodwaters and they lost everything.

“I got out with just the clothes on my back — a shirt, shorts, rubber boots and a baseball cap,'' he said.

Using savings and a subsidy from the federal Section 8 program, the couple and their kids moved into a home on Albanese Circle in San Jose.

Emery's family is embracing the change. His children say they're a little homesick, but happy with their new school and friends. “I miss the things I lost, like my new bedroom set, but it's a better life here,'' said Tyronikia Barabino, 11. “I just wish they'd stopped asking me questions about it at school,'' she said, referring to the hurricane.

Emery misses hanging out on his front porch, stoking up the barbecue and visiting with his neighbors.

“It's hard not knowing people and being 2,500 miles away from family and friends,'' he said, though things are going well for him in the Bay Area. “Life will never be the same.''

Contact Connie Skipitares at or (408) 920-5647.

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