Katrina Cost Vietnamese Fishermen Their Livelihoods
by Kathy L. Gilbert
BILOXI, Miss. (UMNS) - Sweat glistening off their backs, Hung Van Lai and a young friend struggle to load a heavy ice chest onto the deck of the Tiger Shark.
Selling one or two ice chests full of shrimp will not give Lai's family all they need to survive but it is the best he can do these days. Fishing is not the same since Hurricane Katrina cost him his livelihood.
Lai is one of many Vietnamese shrimp fishermen who have lived on the Gulf Coast for 20 years or more.
"There used to be boats everywhere," says Zondra Davis, a case worker for Boat People SOS. "Now there is just a handful. It is almost spooky, the boats were a part of the community and now they are gone."
Navigating the bureaucracy
Boat People SOS is a national Vietnamese community organization formed in the late 1970s to help the community navigate the U.S. bureaucracy and social services available to them.
Boat People SOS is also one of a consortium with nine other organizations, called Katrina Aid Today, headed by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The organization received a $66 million grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security. The grant consists of international donations that were received after the hurricane.
A branch office of the national organization opened last March in Biloxi after Hurricane Katrina and has become a lifeline to the local community struggling to navigate through FEMA applications and government grants forms.
Hien Nguyen and Bao H. Le, with Boat People SOS, are visiting with Lai trying to get him to come into the office for help. After some prodding Lai tells them he used to fish at Bayou La Batre, Ala. He had to cut a hole in the bottom of his boat to store it underwater when the hurricane was approaching. Everything was destroyed and he doesn't have the means to restore his boat.
Lai tells them he has lost all hope. "I am too tired of forms and applications," he says. Instead he invites Le to join him in the afternoon when he will go out to sea and fish.
Walking along the docks looking for people who need help, Le says the high coast of fuel makes it impossible for most of the shrimpers to get out to sea and stay for ten days-the time it would take to bring in enough shrimp to sell to maintain the crews and make a living.
"It costs $50,000 to $60,000 to fill up a boat," he says. "When the storm hit they had to dump their fuel. Social service agencies won't give them a loan so they are shut down."
Many in the community were not in the mainstream, Davis says. They have a fear of the government and it often keeps them from stepping forward and asking for help.
Boat People SOS offers classes in English and computer skills. "Their job skills don't translate, they are in a very specialized industry," Le says.
It is especially hard for the Vietnamese community to recover because of the language barrier but it difficult for everyone, Le says. Boat People SOS helps their clients apply for citizenship, loans and other necessities. "But we can't supply them with a boat or a car or a house," Le says.
"I have done the research and there is nothing out there to help them," Davis says. "I feel like they (shrimpers) are being shut down because the community doesn't want them here anymore."
The hurricane shut down the seafood-processing plants along the coast so even if shrimp fishermen could get out to sea they would have no one to whom they could sell their catch, she adds.
"I think the community doesn't want them, the plants smell bad and it hurts the tourist industry."
The Vietnamese community has been a part of the Gulf Coast for 20 or 30 years, she says.
"It seems like everything in the world is against them," she says. "They can't get anyone to help."
Le waves goodbye to Lai and says maybe he will be back later to go fishing. Lai smiles and says maybe he will give the forms one more try.
It's a start. Le heads back to the office to add another name to the list.
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
Date posted: Sep 01, 2006