Vietnamese Americans, the BP Spill, and the Lessons of Katrina

Vietnamese Americans, the BP Spill, and the Lessons of Katrina

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This past Monday marked a new milestone for victims of the BP oil spill—a revamped claims process that allows them to collect their compensation in larger, more efficient, six-month chunks rather than month by month.

By coincidence, the new system took effect five years to the day after Hurricane Katrina began churning in the Atlantic. The timing is ironic, because in many ways it was the lessons of Katrina that have helped the Vietnamese-American community along the Gulf Coast cope with a disaster that could ultimately be far more destructive to their well-being and way of life.

Claims are expected to pour into the $20 billion compensation fund, overseen by government-appointed administrator Kenneth Feinberg. Earlier this week, fishermen—shrimpers, crabbers, and oyster shuckers—and laid-off seafood- processing workers filed into the Boat People SOS (BPSOS) office in Biloxi, Miss., which opened in the aftermath of the hurricane and is now helping the same people make claims against BP.

No one knows how the BP oil spill will affect the environment in the long term, so most Vietnamese fishermen are not yet seeking a final settlement, says the organization’s Daniel Lee.

“They are going to be resilient,” he says. “They have a lot of resolve, and they are hanging around and waiting until they can resume their livelihood again.”

Vietnamese Americans along the Gulf Coast showed the same resolve to ride out the hard times after the flood waters receded five years ago. Fishing communities from Buras, La., to Bayou La Batre, Ala., bounced back, as did a major Vietnamese-American hub in New Orleans.

While other ethnic communities were slow to return to the devastated city, Vietnamese residents of the east New Orleans neighborhood of Versailles were among the first to begin the process of rebuilding.

That commitment helped the community make remarkable strides in just five years, rebuilding homes, businesses and schools and, in the process, strengthening their ties to the coast. Now those hard-won gains could be jeopardized, as the uncertainty brought by the BP spill threatens to disperse the community again, perhaps forever.

Strong bonds of history, religion, and tradition are what drew the Vietnamese back to post-Katrina Versailles. But what kept them there was a communitywide effort to restore critical infrastructure and services, including a functioning school and health clinic, while the rest of New Orleans floundered.

The first step was creation of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC)—named after the Catholic church where many Versailles residents waited out the hurricane—to spearhead the rebuilding process. From the outset, the group tried to engage the entire neighborhood in planning efforts.

The church hosted “charettes”—intense collaborative design sessions—during which Versailles residents envisioned what they wanted their rebuilt community to look like: a health center, a senior retirement community, an urban farm, a charter school. Five years later, much of that has come to fruition.

Prior to Katrina, Versailles was served by three hospitals in a seven-mile radius. Those privately owned hospitals have not returned, and now the closest hospital is 13 miles away—too far for many elderly residents, says Father Vien Nguyen, a former pastor at the church.

“So, what we’ve done, we created our own clinic to provide for our own people,” says Nguyen, who recently joined the Archdiocese of New Orleans but continues to chair the MQVN CDC. The community partnered with Children’s Hospital and Tulane University to establish a neighborhood “bridge” clinic that provides primary care for residents. But they must still go to hospitals for emergencies and specialized services.

“What we need now is a place to serve people in case of an emergency, where they can be stabilized and then sent to a hospital downtown,” Nguyen says.

A neighborhood school was another Versailles priority. In August 2008, the community broke ground on a K-7 charter school that now enrolls 400 students, more than half of whom are black. Plans for a senior center and retirement housing are in the works, with federal and private funding already secured.

The ability of the Vietnamese community to cope successfully with the BP disaster will depend on a new group of leaders and a new willingness to take on the political power structure—key changes shaped by the Katrina recovery.

Language remains a big issue. But here, too, the community has learned the lessons of Katrina. When Vietnamese fishermen complained about the proficiency and cultural competence of BP’s translators, MQVN CDC trained some of its community members in oil-spill jargon. BP eventually hired about half of them as translators.

Katrina “gave the people a new view of government,” Nguyen says. “In the past we saw those elected as those who govern. Now we see those elected as those who serve. That is a tremendous flip in view. Now we can come to them and ask them to do something for us, and if they don’t, we don’t back them. We make our needs known and expect them to respond to us.”

This is especially true of the new generation of leadership: the sons and daughters of Versailles who lived through the hurricane. They have played a vital role in the BP spill efforts, from fighting for an improved claims system and Vietnamese representation in the Feinberg compensation panel to helping their parents figure put how to reinvent their livelihoods.

Minh Nguyen, who founded a youth organization for Versailles residents after Katrina, drove from New Orleans to the town of Buras this week to talk to his parents about the new claims process. His father, an unemployed crabber, and mother, who used to sell the catch to wholesalers and restaurants but now works in a BP-owned cafeteria for $10 an hour—not even enough to pay for gas, Minh says— hope to use their claim money to buy land and build a gas station in Buras.

“They say that they don’t see themselves moving from the Buras fishing industry,” Minh says, who worries about their mental state but also fears they’re taking a big risk. “If they end up investing a lot in that business, and if people slowly move away because there's no jobs … the business won’t go too well.”

Indeed, re-envisioning the future in a way that is both hopeful but realistic may be the Vietnamese fishing community’s biggest hurdle. After the hurricane, the community challenged itself by thinking big, imagining a different future, and taking steps to follow through, says Tap Bui, an MQVN CDC organizer. She says now people are using the same approach to explore green jobs for fishermen.

The fishermen think they can’t do anything else besides fish, Bui says. But she says they could be retrained to do solar installation, weatherization, or help restore the ravaged Gulf coastline.

“They have the skill set,” she insists. “They fix their boats, they’re welders…and for wetlands restoration, who knows the waters better than the local fishermen?”

But psychologically, the BP spill “is very different than Katrina,” Father Nguyen says. “Katrina did a lot of physical damage—we can see it. [With the oil spill,] most of the damage is invisible. … In Alaska [after the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill], the shrimp did not return for 20 years, the herring did not return. What will happen for the next two, 10 or 20 years? We don’t know. That’s a real concern.”