How Louisiana’s Vietnamese community started over — twice

Updated 3:00 PM ET, Wed August 26, 2015

(CNN)Fishing boats were violently tossed onto land. Water rose above the docks. Countless homes in his community were destroyed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, Robert Nguyen remembers.

The residents were unprepared for the catastrophe the storm would cause. Nguyen didn’t even have insurance for his fishing boat, which for many years was the one tool he had to support his family.

“Nobody knew a Katrina before,” he says.

Nguyen, 63, came to America as a refuge after the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. He remembers being crammed into a large boat with hundreds of other people. Some of his fellow passengers became very ill; a few even fell overboard.

Dubbed the “boat people,” many of the Vietnamese refugees that settled in Louisiana brought with them much knowledge of fishing and working on the water. Southeast Louisiana is a lot like Southeast Asia, Nguyen says.

“If you were a fisherman in Vietnam, it is very easy for you.”

A third of all fishermen in the Gulf are of Vietnamese heritage, putting Louisiana on the list of the 10 states with the largest Vietnamese populations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There are approximately 5,000 Vietnamese families that reside in eastern New Orleans alone. Dozens of businesses with prominent signs in English and Vietnamese have popped up in the area. Bakeries such as Dong Phuong have become a staple; their fresh-baked French bread and famous banh mi sandwiches, affectionately referred to as the Vietnamese po’ boy, draw in a diverse clientele.

But 10 years ago, this tight-knit community, and the fishermen who had settled in, found themselves in uncertain waters yet again.

Hurricane Katrina came to be known as the single most catastrophic natural disaster in U.S. history. More than a million people in the Gulf region were displaced by the storm and over 1,800 lost their lives. Approximately 80% of New Orleans flooded after the levees broke, causing an estimated $108 billion in damages.

In the years after the storm, the residential neighborhoods of eastern New Orleans were slowly rebuilt. Homes, proactively raised against future flood waters, were lined with manicured lawns. American flags flew proudly alongside the South Vietnam flag, a yellow flag with three red strips.

The Catholic Church played a big role in this revival. Today, on any given Thursday, dozens of community members can be seen attending Mass — many bringing their children with them. Mary Queen of Vietnam Church was established in eastern New Orleans shortly after the end of the Vietnam War and played a major role in helping new arrivals find housing, resources and acclimate to life in New Orleans.

The church has since served as a place for members to receive services and supplies from the Red Cross and other aid organizations in the aftermath of Katrina.

It took a year for many of the fishing boats in Nguyen’s community to be repaired or replaced and get back to work, he says. A mere four years later, there was another devastating blow.

The fishing season was just getting underway when the infamous BP oil spill happened. A deadly explosion aboard a BP contracted oil rig caused an estimated 210,000 gallons of oil to pour into the Gulf of Mexico each day, killing marine life.

Cyndi Nguyen (no relation to Robert Nguyen) is a 40-year resident of New Orleans, and the daughter and granddaughter of a fisherman who migrated to Louisiana in 1975. She runs an organization called VIET, or Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training. The organization has been instrumental in supporting the community in the wake of these disasters.

“It was a lesson for our fishermen,” Cyndi Nguyen said. “Many of their businesses were not established properly; many of them were cash based.”

Lack of proper documentation made it difficult for many of the fishermen to collect damages from BP. Adding to an already complicated process was the language barrier.

“Grown men were crying, pleading for help,” she remembers. “They didn’t know how they would take care of their families.”

Resources and workshops have since been put in place to help small business owners in the community establish and protect their businesses. But five years after the oil spill, the impact continues to reverberate. Robert Nguyen and other fishermen in his community insist the amount of crab and shrimp they catch has never fully recovered to levels before the oil spill — and neither have selling prices.

Cyndi Nguyen, who remembers fleeing Vietnam at 5 on a cramped boat, knows what it’s like to feel your lifestyle slipping away. After Katrina, exhausted and discouraged, she was not sure whether she had the energy to return to New Orleans and rebuild her home. It was the pointed words of her mother that reminded her of the resilience of her family and the Vietnamese community as a whole.

“Remember 1975?” Cyndi Nguyen’s mother asked her. “We had nothing but our two hands. We didn’t speak the language. FEMA wasn’t there, but we did it.”

Thinking of Katrina, and all the Vietnamese community of Southeast Louisiana has been through since, Cyndi Nguyen exhales slowly.

“We did it together,” she says.


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