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Al Jazeera Reports on New Orleans' Vietnamese Recovery

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Frontline Photo:Armed with a new sense of belonging, the Versailles Vietnamese returned just six weeks after Katrina to begin rebuilding. By January 2006, more than half the community had returned, and the rest of the City began to take notice.

YouTube says this Al-Jazeera video isn't available to embed, though the service claims it'll give easy access to Al Jazeera in English. That you have to click a link, though, doesn't change the value of the reporting -- go watch it, and it'll remind you -- again -- why the Bush administration hated Al Jazeera so much.

It will also show you one part of New Orleans' drowned Ninth Ward making a comeback in spite of, rather than helped by, the governments of the city, parish, state, and nation -- a community in far better shape than many.

Indeed, it wasn't just the hurricane they had to overcome: it was a toxic waste dump the City of New Orleans located in their neighborhood.

Frontline Photo: In early February 2006, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin signed an executive order permitting the dumping of Katrina debris at the landfill, located less than two miles from Versailles.

There's a PBS documentary for Independent Lens, "A Village Called Versailles," you should also see. A community of immigrants, many of whom had come to the US as refugees from the Vietnam War, simply didn't accept that their homes, their businesses, and their community weren't worth saving, points out NOLa's own Times-Picayune.

Perhaps this is the Village Called Versailles we should all respect, if not actively emulate, eh?

Rick Weil, "Father Vien with Recovery Plan." Katrina's Jewish Voices, Object #2196 (September 01 2009, 12:41 pm)

Refusing to give in, refusing to give up, refusing to be beaten.

While this community drew much of its drive from its pastor and church, Mary Queen of Vietnam, the close-knit nature of the families and the experience of many of the older members of the parish during the war in their homeland, not to mention the trials that accompanied their emigration, cannot be discounted.

As the Times-Picayune reported,

By the end of October 2005, nearly 500 families had returned to Versailles, practically making it the largest community in eastern New Orleans over night.

In the first few weeks after people returned, potable water was transported daily to Versailles from Algiers and cafeteria-style meals were cooked using gas-powered generators. According to Nguyen, while the sparse resources enabled people to stay, life was getting increasingly tough for those who were once so eager to return.

"After a few days, my people said that they needed electricity," Nguyen recounts. "They said if they had electricity, they could get back on their feet."

Using the community's rebounding population as leverage, Nguyen approached Entergy officials and asked them to divert power to Versailles from higher priority areas such as downtown New Orleans. Gathering a petition from all the residents who had returned, Nguyen delivered a quick blow in the fight for electric power.

"I had my people deliver a list of 500 households requesting electricity…and on the first weekend of November, we got it," Nguyen says.

After getting power, the community rapidly got to work re-roofing houses and rebuilding small businesses. According to Nguyen, presently 47 of 53 Vietnamese-American owned businesses have reopened, 8 restaurants are in operation and nearly every house that suffered wind damage now has a new roof.

Nguyen and his parishioners' ability to mobilize and gets things done seems an anomaly in a city where recovery often happens at a painfully sluggish rate and where many areas only have a fraction of their pre-storm populations. Taking a step back, Nguyen says that he and his neighbors have one key advantage over other parts of New Orleans.

"Other people have neighborhoods, we have a community." Nguyen says. "80 percent of the Vietnamese-American population in New Orleans East is Catholic and there is a very organized church structure. So, when we say we need to do something, everything will be done."

The people of Versailles, which is considered to have the densest population of Vietnamese-Americans in the country, take Nguyen's words to heart. And nowhere else is this more obvious than in the fight to close, and eventually relocate, the Chef Menteur landfill.

Shortly after Mayor Ray Nagin approved the Chef Menteur landfill site, which sits precariously close to Bayou Sauvage and a mile from the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, crews started dumping tons of storm debris onto the site. Nguyen says it didn't take long to figure out that something was wrong.

"It was being dumped directly into the wetland," Nguyen says. "The underground water there is one to four feet. The pit is thirty feet and water has to be constantly pumped out because groundwater is flowing directly into it."

According to Mary Queen of Vietnam Church spokesperson Susan Do, the site was never properly lined to keep hazard materials and toxins from seeping into the water table. When Nguyen and others realized that water was flowing in and out of the site, they knew something had to be done.

"They argued that it was rainwater," Nguyen says, "but I said 'I live here, we're in a drought.' "

No doubt gaining support from the pulpit during weekend masses, Nguyen mustered his parishioners to stage numerous protests in front of City Hall and petition government and nonprofit agencies to step in on their behalf. After weeks of demonstrations and wrangling with city and state governments, protestors persuaded Mayor Ray Nagin to let expire his previous order that originally opened the landfill. Presently, the landfill remains closed.

Now, the community is working not only to keep the landfill closed to further dumping, but to getting the materials removed from the site completely.

"We've got it closed," says Do, "and the next step is to get them to remove the materials to another site. We're not asking them just to do the same thing in another community, but to at the very least find a site that isn't illegal."

More battles ahead

Though the people of Versailles have coped with both personal hardships and a battle against a potentially hazardous waste site, there is still much to be done. Nguyen is quick to note that while his parish has been successful in executing plans for recovery, often it is at the mercy of others when trying to move forward.

Of course, it isn't just New Orleans: post-1975, a Vietnamese diaspora saw communities established in California's Orange County, the DFW Metroplex, Biloxi, and other cities across the US.

Frontline has more, as does Al-Jazeera, on everything from water to matters of race, economic inequality in cities, and, of course, the complicated, frustrating, endless politics that go with such conflicts.

Kinda makes me wish we had more foreign media available on basic cable in the US, let alone via satellite.

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