Receding Floodwaters

August heat in New Orleans is a heat felt inside the body. It is the heat of a city 12 feet below sea level, where feet drag on blistering concrete and the breeze carries nothing but the smell of the lake and river. New Orleans always moves slowly, but in August it comes to a halt. The summer is marked by wet air, sticky skin, and an insatiable lethargy. At night, screeching cicadas are the only way to tell that time moves at all.

But water is quiet, and even the cicadas fell silent for the weeks that brackish waves lapped at shotgun house porches in the aftermath of Katrina. Spray-painted X-codes identified which rescue squad had come to survey the house, the time and date that the team arrived, the hazards within the house, and the number of people (or bodies) found. In one house, a gaping hole in a roof cast shadows of a family using an axe to escape.        

As floodwaters finally receded back into Bayou Sauvage and Lake Borgne in late August of 2005, they left only a shell of New Orleans in the crescent of the Mississippi River. This new, post-Katrina New Orleans was bleak. New Orleanian refugees marooned throughout the United States wondered what awaited them in southeast Louisiana. Images of corpses swollen with water and the Superdome crowded with people dominated the news cycle.

But in the Village de l’Est community of New Orleans East, something different was happening. In mid-October of 2005, only a little more than a month after Katrina made landfall and days after the floodwaters receded, a group of Vietnamese-Americans arrived en masse to the East. By early November, the community had even successfully pressured the city to turn on the utilities for home use. While the majority of New Orleanians were still stranded across the country, the residents of Village de l’Est were planning church services, discussing reconstruction plans, and opening their homes to the refugees who had been trapped during the storm.    

The story of Vietnamese resilience post-Katrina was quickly hijacked by anti-black media outlets that transformed the incredible endurance of Village de l’Est to fit their racist narrative which pit southeast Louisiana’s poor black communities against their Vietnamese neighbors. The speedy organization and activism of the Vietnamese community was juxtaposed with the lack of activity in the Lower Ninth Ward in order to exacerbate the pre-existing racial tensions between the two communities, both of whom were disproportionately affected by the storm. The government and media outlets alike underscored Vietnamese self-reliance by framing them against the “government-dependent” black communities of their neighborhoods.

This narrative failed to address the complex history of the Vietnamese in New Orleans, which played a vital role in forging their identity borne out of communal and intergenerational trauma. The first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Louisiana in the wake of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The U.S. had finally renounced support for the Vietnam War, and North Vietnamese troops had invaded South Vietnam as a result of the withdrawal of American combat troops from the area. Around 2,100 of the estimated 130,000 Vietnamese people that fled that spring settled in New Orleans. By 1985, an estimated 12,000 Vietnamese residents were living in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, with almost 6,000 concentrated in the Versailles neighborhood alone.

The Vietnamese resettlement process was spearheaded by the Associated Catholic Charities, an organization that the New Orleans Archdiocese worked through in order to sponsor the first resettlement of 1,000 Vietnamese families in New Orleans East. Catholicism, which plays an important role in the cultural identity of New Orleanians, worked as the foundation upon which the New Orleanian Vietnamese society was built. In August of 1978, a mere three years after the Vietnamese began immigrating from South Vietnam to New Orleans, a Vietnamese Catholic chapel was opened to fully service the neighborhood. This chapel would expand in the early ‘80s to become Mary Queen of Vietnam Church (MQVC), which was instrumental in the organization of the community after Katrina and today serves as the center of Vietnamese culture in New Orleans East.  

As the only former French colony in the United States, New Orleans was a popular destination for Vietnamese refugees who hoped for an easy transition and re-creation of the lifestyles and culture from their old towns. French cultural influence, as well as the city’s proximity to the coast, also attracted immigrants who did not speak English or wanted to continue their lives as fishermen. Dzuyet Hoang, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled Saigon in 1975, reflected on his resettlement process with the Times-Picayune reporter Gayle Ashton in 1985. He explained, “They ask us where we want to settle … maybe in Washington, what do you want? They say New Orleans is a city on the coast, the climate is warm and have many seafood. And we say, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah.’ And we choose New Orleans. Because of the warm weather, the seafood available, the people who speak French sometimes. But we choose it.”

Despite various cultural and environmental similarities, however, the Vietnamese transition into the city was anything but smooth. The majority of the Vietnamese refugees settled in the Versailles community of the Village de l’Est neighborhood, an area that was approximately 90 percent black at the time. Race relations intensified as the marginalized black communities began to feel as though the Vietnamese presence was negatively impacting the city and the neighborhood. Various black community leaders expressed concerns that the resettlement program worsened the city’s already depressed economy by increasing both taxes and competition among the poor for limited housing and jobs.

Cheryl Wilson Cramer, head of a city task force that studied the effect of the Southeast Asian refugee population on New Orleans, explained in 1985 that resentment towards the Vietnamese spread throughout portions of the black communities as a result of the special programs that assisted in helping the Vietnamese of New Orleans East prosper. The $800,000 spent by the Associated Catholic Charities, in partnership with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to buy housing for 1,000 Vietnamese families in a low-income black neighborhood was seen as an investment into foreigners instead of the community. Other programs that were exclusive to Vietnamese immigrants were various tax breaks, welfare (even though only 20.4 percent of Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans collected welfare in the 1980s, as compared to the 54 percent nationwide as reported by Gayle Ashton in The Times-Picayune), and even small plots of lands to grow crops to sell at the markets.

The conflicts between New Orleans residents and the Vietnamese immigrant communities, however, were not purely economic. New Orleans, though popular among various immigrant groups, had never before had a substantial Asian population. The appearance of these newcomers shocked white and black locals alike and the cultural differences intensified the strain surrounding the resettlement process. “The Vietnamese would dry fish or shrimp in 90-degree heat on their balcony and their American neighbors would come home and get a whiff,” recounted the Versailles Arms apartment manager Melanie Ottaway in 1985. Farther south, in coastal towns throughout Plaquemines Parish, fishing communities also felt the impacts of resettlement as Louisiana fisherman began to compete with the Vietnamese in overcrowded waters throughout the Louisiana coast. Louisiana shrimpers oftentimes felt that the Vietnamese were not respecting Southern shrimping and fishing customs, which caused strife between the two communities.

Despite the intense racial divide, heightened economic hardships, and their limited ability to speak English and thus communicate with the majority of their neighbors, the Vietnamese refugee communities were painted by the public as communities with a “bootstrap ethic” in the face of their many grievances. The Vietnamese quickly found employment and often began paying their own rent after the first month of resettlement. Michael Haddad, who was head of the Associated Catholic Charities at the time of the resettlement and thus in charge of the $800,000 housing expenses, explained that “I was scared … [but] they took a lot of jobs nobody else wanted, menial low-wage jobs. The advantage they had was a tight family unit. And when all of them were working at minimum-wage jobs, they were basically able to swing the rent.” The “bootstrap” narrative imposed onto the Vietnamese was only strengthened by the fact that the refugees were fleeing a communist country. Rather than attributing the dedication of the Vietnamese to the survival tactics imposed on them as refugees and necessary for survival, Americans instead created the narrative that capitalism empowered the Vietnamese to make a new homeland for themselves.

In 1985, The Times-Picayune even published an article titled “Refugees Showed They Are Survivors” with an entire section titled “A bootstrap ethic.” In this section, the journalist Gayle Ashton reports, “Although some refugees may have escaped Vietnam with jewelry or gold, many—especially those who were attacked by pirates as they escaped by boat—arrived with nothing. What may amaze or confound native-born Americans is a difference in Vietnamese values and lifestyle that is reflected in their quick economic process.” Later in the article, Ashton further supports her claim of Vietnamese “bootstrap ethic” by quoting a personnel director for a major New Orleans hotel. The director explains, “I find they tend to be industrious entrepreneurs. I wish more people had the same work ethic.” The hotel director and Ashton both clearly value the work ethic of the Vietnamese refugees, but hidden in their words is an understanding that the Vietnamese are prosperous in capitalist United States in a way that they would not be in newly communist Vietnam. Though this article, published as part of a four-day series celebrating a decade of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, was written in 1985, it exhibits how the early perceptions of the Vietnamese would manifest into the later characterization of Vietnamese resiliency and how this understanding glorifies capitalism as the economic system which empowered these refugees to flourish.

However, Vietnamese New Orleanians themselves also identify in part with this “bootstrap” narrative, especially in how it relates to anti-communism. Cyndi Nguyen, current city councilwoman for District E (the district where Village de l’Est is located and which took the brunt of the Katrina damage), writes in her campaign biography that she was five years old when she and her family left Vietnam in 1975. Nguyen’s website explains that “they escaped from the Communists because her parents wanted their children to have access to opportunities and most importantly to have freedom.” Later, Nguyen cites her immigration to New Orleans as the key motivating factor that fuels her “work ethic, her integrity, and her audacity of hope.” Nguyen believes that capitalism and the United States afforded her the opportunities to be where she is today and to empower her district, comprised of both Vietnamese and black communities. She does not criticize capitalism even though capitalism plays a huge role in the poverty, violence, and destruction in her own district. However, she also governs on a promise of unity: unlike the post-Katrina media focus that sought to polarize the Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans, Nguyen promised to utilize the strengths of each community so that together post-Katrina New Orleans East could prosper.   

This “bootstrap ethic” narrative played an integral role in the outside perception of post-Katrina Vietnamese organization in New Orleans. Nguyen’s City Council District E was the area most heavily impacted by the storm; when over 50 levees failed on August 29, 2005, Village de l’Est and the Lower Ninth Ward took on over 20 feet of water. This area flooded along with 80 percent of the city as thousands of homes were destroyed and the Vietnamese community was once again displaced.

However, this destruction did not delay the return of the Vietnamese to Village de l’Est. The Vietnamese, emboldened once again by the MQVC and the head priest Father Vien Nguyen, returned to New Orleans East in droves, ready to reclaim and rebuild their new homeland. In mid-October of 2005, less than two weeks after Mayor C. Ray Nagin had declared the city safe for return, the Vietnamese took the first steps towards the re-creation of normal life by creating a petition that successfully persuaded the utility companies to restore power in New Orleans East, which became the first neighborhood to receive power in the city after the storm. By early December of 2005, an estimated 600 Vietnamese individuals had returned and begun cleaning and repairing Vietnamese American homes and businesses in the area. Over 90 percent of the Vietnamese community was once again living in New Orleans East by the spring of 2007, compared to the less than 50 percent of black residents that once resided in the neighborhood.

During the immediate post-Katrina rebuilding effort, the Vietnamese were lauded as the first community to return to the city and begin the restoration process without significant government assistance. Instead of celebrating this astounding example of exemplary community organization and impressive resiliency, the city and state political climate quickly shifted towards anti-black rhetoric. The Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans East both endured the brunt of the Katrina damage, but the quick Vietnamese return laid the groundwork for victim-blaming against the black communities that was perpetuated both politically and in general by white elites.

This victim-blaming is preserved in a news segment by Al Jazeera English, an English-language news and current affairs TV station headquartered in Doha, Qatar. In the segment, Rob Reynolds follows Father Luke Nguyen through New Orleans East as Nguyen regales the tale of the last year. However, much of Nguyen’s speech is voiced over as Reynolds uses the resiliency of Vietnamese New Orleanians to shame the black communities (though they remain unmentioned). He explains, “After Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese community decided not to wait for the government or insurance companies to help. They returned to their neighborhood immediately and started rebuilding.” This kind of reporting dismisses the violence and fear that the black communities experienced at the hands of the police during and immediately after Katrina, stereotypes the black communities as lazy, and dismisses the actual voices of the Vietnamese communities. Reynolds spends a large part of the segment talking over Father Nguyen’s speech, erasing the voice of the community in favor of the voice of white elites.

Shockingly, however, for the first time in city history, the Vietnamese and the black communities forged a united front. In solidarity, they organized to hold government officials accountable and prevent the continued marginalization of their communities. The strongest display of unity was presented in the form of a coalition between the black and Vietnamese communities when, in February of 2006, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced that a toxic waste landfill would be opened less than two miles from the Versailles Arms Apartments in Village de l’Est. MQVC once again stepped in by developing the MQVC Community Development Corporation, whose mission is “to preserve and promote our unique diversity and improving the quality of life of residents in the Greater New Orleans area, beginning in New Orleans East.” The MQVC Community Development Corporation united the two communities under the same goal: to prevent the opening of the Katrina landfill, which would in essence serve as a dumping ground for all of the toxic waste that was left in the city by the receded floodwaters and result in the further marginalization of the communities in the area.

On the anniversary of Katrina, Vietnamese and black citizens alike from all over the Greater New Orleans Area stood at the gates of the proposed landfill as they awaited the arrival of dump trucks. With the eyes of the nation watching, the two united communities understood that the landfill was bigger than themselves. They were fighting for all of New Orleans and for everyone that would come after them. The demonstration was successful, for the dump trucks never arrived and the proposed landfill was never opened. The Vietnamese and black communities, who had been so segregated and divided for the past three decades, had come together to rise up against the powers that had oppressed them.

“We are a suffering people,” Father Luke Nguyen remarked to Reynolds in the 2007 interview. “We endure a lot of pains in the history of our development as a culture. And the war—the war in our land—kills a lot of people. And so Katrina here … is only a twist to us. It’s only a twist.” Father Nguyen’s words, which came less than two years after the storm, epitomize the Vietnamese outlook on disaster and destruction. He considers his people to be a people born of pain; people who must endure deep anguish in order to persevere. South Vietnam and the capitalist haven that it could have been must live on within Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans. His words resonate with those of Jane Foley, who was the resettlement director for the Associated Catholic Charities. “Survivors, that’s what they are. They don’t give up. They do what they have to do.” The Vietnamese response to Katrina and their rebuilding of a post-Katrina society is contingent on their identities as war refugees. The suffering and trauma that they endured in their home country at the hands of their own government gave them the strength to endure anything.

“The war changed the face of the Earth,” Trancong, former magazine director and Vietnamese immigrant to New Orleans, remarked to Ashton in 1985. “The war changed the values of Americans. The war changed a lot of things.” Trancong’s words here haunt the post-Katrina Vietnamese population of New Orleans, a population that has already once been traumatized by the loss of a homeland. Determined not to lose their “second homeland,” the Vietnamese returned, rebuilt, and made sure to lift up their neighbors to do the same. There was no more racial divide or jealousy or pain between the two groups because the Vietnamese saw in the black communities where they themselves had been 30 years prior. Even store owner Mike Tran, who returned to his looted grocery store in Mid-City New Orleans a mere six weeks after Katrina, showed no animosity towards those who robbed him. Proudly, he explained that his store, which was built on an elevated slab, must have served as a safe haven for those who had stayed behind to weather Katrina. He pointed out the large pieces of cardboard that were scattered throughout his store and remarked that they probably served as temporary sleeping mats for those stranded there. “Cash, liquor, and cigarettes—yeah, they stole everything. But, you know, not everyone was there to steal. Some people were just finding a way to survive.”

November is a time of of celebration. The sweltering August heat is a hazy memory as the sun starts to dip below the Mississippi River and ushers in a cool breeze. We remember that we have survived another hurricane season. We remember that, somehow, we always survive—though not all of us. But the Natchez in the port will play her dirge, and the people in the streets will sing of the cypress trees, and we will remember that our communities—born of floodwaters, of X-codes, and of war—will fight for one another. People fall in love with New Orleans not for the oppressive heat, but for the people that come out of it. And my people will always, always come out of it.

Heat Issue | November 2018