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 floodwaters—particularly the economically desperate Lower Ninth Ward—the 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.
The Vietnamese residents of New Orleans East say that it is their shared culture that makes them so steadfast. That history, says Father Vien, goes back at least as far as 1954, when the country was partitioned and the residents of three North Vietnamese villages fled to the relative freedom of the South. Leading the migration were Catholic priests. When the south fell in 1975, the parishioners once again fled the communists together, this time to America, most of them by way of refugee camps. They settled in New Orleans at the invitation of the Catholic Church here.
As he stopped by the food distribution center operating out of the church’s compound, 69-year-old Tuoc Nguyen put Hurricane Katrina into perspective. He recalled a typhoon that leveled his village in North Vietnam in the late 1940’s. Then, too, the storm surge broke the levy and the village was flooded. He remembers seeing the bodies of dead villagers and dead fish floating around the village. He can still remember the stench. Like Katrina, that storm produced a flash flood when the levy was breached, sweeping away homes made of mud and straw. There was another difference, though. “After the storm in Vietnam, everyone was just left hungry and cold. Here we have help, in Vietnam there was no help at all,” he said, speaking through a translator.
Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents New Orleans East in the city council, says the Vietnamese community has set a good example for other communities that desperately want to return to their homes but have not gotten the support they need. Despite the mayor’s opposition to signing a blanket right of re-entry into all New Orleans neighborhoods after Katrina and the federal government’s reluctance to commit funds to the reconstruction of the whole of New Orleans, the Vietnamese community has gone ahead with not only returning, but presenting a plan for an enhanced neighborhood. “From day one [the city council] has been fighting for every neighborhood to return. They may have jump-started that process,” Willard-Lewis said.
There is some fear that the neighborhood will remain isolated among the ruins of more flood-prone neighborhoods that will not rebuild. They mayor’s office has argued that since many New Orleans residents are still in exile, it is inappropriate to commit to reconstruction in all neighborhoods. Other groups, like the Urban Land Institute, have called on the city to pay heed to the city’s topography and make green spaces out of the most flood-prone areas.
Katrina had a disproportionately negative effect on the city’s poor neighborhoods, which are the most vulnerable to flooding, and thus less likely to be repopulated. Many of those neighborhoods are in the Ninth Ward. The better off, but still insular Vietnamese community is straddling the line between recovery and uncertainty.
Father Vien estimates that most Vietnamese-owned businesses have reopened. Among them are the Tram Anh video store, specializing in Vietnamese movies and karaoke videos as well as biographies of Ho Chi Min and Ngo Dinh Diem and books recounting battles during the Vietnam Wars. Nearby, a locally touted Vietnamese Po’boy shop has reopened, selling overstuffed sandwiches made with three kinds of pork and Vietnamese iced coffee, made with New Orleans French Market coffee.
In the recently opened Anh Hong restaurant, the server attended to a buffet lunch as a young woman in a Viet Pop karaoke video sang forlornly about a lemon tree on a big screen television. Some businesses are ready to open, but the owners cannot find any workers, said the 42 year-old server, who asked to remain anonymous because she was shy about her stilted English.
When she returned to the city after her exile in Houston and Dallas, the server said she was frightened. There was no electricity and no people, only stray cats. “It looked like a death city,” she said. But with each passing day, more residents returned. “I hope we will rebuild again,” she said, shrugging off rumors that the neighborhood might not be incorporated into the future New Orleans. No matter what, she said, “Everyone will still go back and fix their house[s] and don’t care what people say.”
Texas didn’t feel like home to the Vietnamese in exile there, the server said, so they hurried back. “Even if your home is nothing, it is still your sweet home,” she said.