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On the shelves of Sonny Hoang's supermarket in New Orleans East, bags of Zatarain's crab boil sit next to bags of glutinous white rice, cans of jackfruit share space with Louisiana brand hot sauce. Behind the counter, Hoang, 35, does a brisk business. His was the first grocery to reopen for the thousands of Vietnamese residents here who returned to rebuild after the most devastating natural disaster in U.S. history.
Despite the odds, the neighborhood is thriving. On a recent afternoon Hoang didn't have time to leave the cash register to investigate a delivery, and the species of a cooler full of whole fish remained unidentified. When he did break from the register, it was to clean pork ribs behind the butcher's counter.
In the upper corner of the now-infamous Ninth Ward, New Orleans East lies about 10 miles to the northeast of the tourist-oriented and relatively unscathed French Quarter. Whereas most of the semi-urban sprawl of the Ninth Ward was devastated by floodwatersparticularly the economically desperate Lower Ninth Wardthe higher-lying Vietnamese enclave was among only a handful of neighborhoods spared the brunt of Katrina's storm surge. Because of this, Hoang's electrical system was not damaged and he was able to get the store up and running in time for residents who started streaming back into the reopened neighborhood this December. Most of his customers pay in cash, but the weary-eyed Hoang extends credit to those who need it. "Sometimes I get burned," he says.
Besides selling food and dry goods, there has been a run on pots, pans, spoons, bowls, and the other basics of cookware. "People are just like me," he said of the still-ongoing restoration of his two-family home several blocks away, "When I cleaned my house, I didn't even think about saving anything. I just threw everything out."
Hoang evacuated to Dallas ahead of the storm, but like many of his neighbors, he didn't see any alternative but to return and rebuild. As such, he never asked the local government or FEMA if he should proceed. "We didn't have the time to ask," he said, "we just came home to rebuild the store so people have a place to shop." Until FEMA releases its floodplain maps next month, residents and small business owners will not know how much it will cost to insure properties they are laboring to restore.
On a nearby street, Huynh Bui, 30, supervised roof repairs for his family's one-storey home. Bui's place only took on a foot or so of water but suffered structural damage and mold. Now teaching himself carpentry, Bui six months ago rode out the storm with four brothers and sisters and his mother, who is paralyzed and bedridden. "The roof started peeling off and the water started coming in," said Bui, who emigrated from Vietnam when he was 13. One by one, holes appeared over each room in the one-storey house, spilling water and debris. The family moved their mother's bed from room to room ahead of the fissures, finally settling in the one corner of the house that kept its roof. Only when the levies were breached and the floodwaters drew near did the family evacuate. Bui would spend the next five weeks at his mother's side in a Birmingham, Alabama hospital room, watching television as New Orleans seemed to sink.
So far only about a third of the population of New Orleans has returned, compared to a forty-five percent rate of return in the Vietnamese enclave, community leaders say. The balance is staying in Vietnamese communities throughout the South, some waiting for home repairs to be completed, others for FEMA trailers. "People can't afford to rent another house, so they have to come back here," said Bui, whose only financial assistance was a $16,000 insurance check. "When I first came back [after the storm] I was scarred. People were acting crazy. But our culture is the most important thing, we have to build up our culture."
Six months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, most of New Orleans East is still in ruins. Heaps of junked appliances and disemboweled furniture line the streets. Traffic lights are still inoperative. So are hundreds of mud-caked cars that litter the city. But the Vietnamese enclave is an oasis in a desert of abandonment.
The nerve-center of the resurgence of is the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic church, a squat, cinder block of a building lying in the shadows of the roller coasters of the ruined Six Flags amusement park, which was underwater for weeks after Katrina. Six thousand of the almost entirely Vietnamese neighborhood's 9,000 people are Catholic, and the church has provided a non-governmental support system for the community.
The desire to return was immediate, Father Vien Nguyen, the priest of the church said, and many residents snuck back into the neighborhood before they were officially allowed in. "When we first returned, the church was an anchor for the people," he said. Once the neighborhood was opened the church coordinated deliveries of food and supplies. The church also dispatched teams of volunteers, some from Vietnamese communities in other cities, to help people gut their homes, all of this well before the Red Cross showed up, Father Vien said. The first post-Katrina Mass was held on October 9 and drew 300 people. Attendance has since grown to around 2,000, Father Vien said.