A Hurricane is Nothing . . .

By Kathleen Carlin



In my life, I had no fear but many events engraved on my memory. The first phase was before the treaty which stopped war and divided the country was signed, I arrived in the South. The second phase was from 1962 to 1975 when I was in the army and had to combat continuously. Thank God that I am still alive. I was anti-communist at a very young age. After losing the South, I thought over that I didn't lose my wife, children… but lost job and everything that I devoted to bringing peace to the country. Therefore, after April 30, [1975] I didn't want to stay in Vietnam, and God helped me. We arrived in Malaysia on my first escape attempt. We had no money, only relied on food from the government during 14 months in Malaysia. A month after arriving in the U.S., I went to work. Now, my children, grandchildren go to school. They have houses and jobs. . . (elderly Vietnamese man, translated from Vietnamese)


Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage on the Gulf Coast. The levee failures in New Orleans flooded 80% of the city including the neighborhood of Versailles in New Orleans East. This is the largest Vietnamese-American community in the city, having a population of about 15,000 (about half of the Vietnamese in the city) and is centered around Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. Like most of the city population, about 80% of the Vietnamese had evacuated their homes before the hurricane hit. Almost all suffered heavy to enormous property damages; indeed, more than one half described their damages as "severe" or "total destruction." Fewer than 25% said that insurance would cover most of their losses, and 20% had no insurance at all. Despite such widespread devastation, only a small proportion (20%) reported borrowing money in response to the losses they incurred in the storm. The area suffered wind damage and was flooded with one to three feet of water, but within a year of the storm the community was more than 90% rebuilt, with little government assistance. Neighboring subdivisions had rebuilt perhaps half of their homes and businesses during this time. Versailles became a poster child for community rebuilding, community spirit, and success in overcoming Katrina.

Since 2005 the KATIVA-NOLA Project (Katrina Impacts on Vietnamese American Living in New Orleans), led by the Tulane School of Public Health ( mhosa/kativanola.cfm) has been conducting a longitudinal study of this community, pre- and post-disaster, by interviewing community leaders and families and collecting health data. Our comparisons show significantly lower stress levels for both physical symptoms of stress (such as blood pressure and self-reported evaluations of sleep disorders and anxiety) among the Vietnamese, as compared to data collected in black and white communities in the same area.

It is remarkable that health in this community - both physical and mental health - declined and then regained pre-Katrina levels within about a year after the storm, particularly because immigrants are considered to be at high risk for negative consequences of disasters (for example, Webster et al. 1995). This increased risk is because immigrants often live in more marginal areas of the city, many of them occupy fairly vulnerable and low-wage positions making disaster-related losses acute, and -being non-native speakers of English - access to information and services for self-protection and recovery are less available (or attractive) to them.

However, it is clear from our interviews that the cultural traits which aided this comeback are strong community ties, strong family ties, and a cultural belief in hard work. These connections provide encouragement during times of difficulty and are invaluable. For example, a 40-year-old mother of three told us how she and her extended family sat in Houston watching news of New Orleans flooding:

When I evacuated with three children, I freaked - I freaked. How am I going to take care of my kids without a job? How am I going to feed them? My mom was like, "How do you think we did it in 1975?" I was like, "What do you mean? I was only 5. How would I know?" My mom said, "Well, you know, we only had one or two outfits in my bag, but I had your sister and your brother with me and we did it." And I said, "But, that was in the old days. (I was serious.) And in America you have to pay for things." And she said, "We did it and we can do it again." And I was like, "She thinks we are living in another country. . . ." And I haven't taken the opportunity, even though I see her every day, to thank my mother for that spiritual connection back to my culture, because I almost forgot. It's tough - born in Vietnam, raised here, Americanized.... When Katrina hit, I felt like I lost everything, but my parents helped me rekindle that and reminded me about 1975 and the fall of Saigon and how they came over here. Because of that, I was able to visualize, using the stories about Vietnam and coming over here to say, "Hey, millions of people came over here, more than the number of people that evacuated for Katrina, and they survived, and many of them are extremely successful, and this is just an interruption in our lives."

The family members have handled a crisis well by making it familiar through the use of family narratives which put the disaster in perspective. Identity updating occurred for many people post-Katrina in connection to past experiences of parents and grandparents. Shore (2008) explains identity updating as the term for bringing forward your sense of your own identity to match up with the physical and social changes which affect how others see you. This is done through social supports such as life-stage ceremonies, social interactions, and experiencing something first-hand and then participating or observing as younger people have these same experiences. Another version is that of experiencing a situation which you have previously heard about from others. (This might be called the "Oh, this is what they were talking about..." experience.) An example of this is a young man who became the head of a NGO after Katrina:

For my friends and peers, they saw the older folks as people who knew what they were doing - Pretty up to stuff, cool, calm and collected. In that sense, the younger generation had respect for the older generation because they stayed cool during that part. And also I think the older people started to warm up to the younger generation, because we were the ones that they came up to when they needed help. Before, it used to be the cultural thinking where the parents take care of the kids so everything went through them, but after the hurricane the roles were reversed and then kids became the liaisons for FEMA and Red Cross. They were relying on us now to take care of them and hopefully we were able to do a decent job. There was a mutual respect that grew out of it for both generations. It definitely helped my relationship with my folks.

Our team of researchers knew the history of Vietnam and the trajectory of this community's story, but it was not until we began conducting interviews with elders in the community - and having them transcribed and translated so that the interviews were available to those of us who are not bilingual-that the power of their stories became obvious.

The elders of the neighborhood are from villages in northern coastal Vietnam. Vietnam was a French colony for approximately a century until World War II. Being a peasant farmer under the colonial administration was difficult, but then things grew more difficult when the Japanese occupied the country, a civil war against the colonial government began, and a famine occurred (1944-45).

Interviewer: So when you were young during the Japanese and/or French invasion, could you tell us a little bit about that time?

Interviewee: That time was the French period. Afterward, the Japanese defeated the French and they forced everybody to destroy mulberry trees [in order] to plant jute to make mats. Every household must do it. In 1945, there was famine. Before that there was the flood that swept away many houses. My house wasn't swept away but it flooded. We lost the harvest but we still had to contribute rice to the Japanese. For every section of field, we had to pay twelve buckets of rice, and every bucket was 10 kg. Everybody had to do it. If not, they would beat you. It was called "rice payment". The buckets [of rice] were kept in a storehouse in Nam Dinh. How the Viet Cong won is unknown, but the Japanese lost and retreated from Nam Dinh. They burnt down the storehouse; therefore, people starved to death. (elderly man, translated from Vietnamese)

Partition in 1954

The extended families in these villages had converted to Catholicism en famille masse more than a century before, and they viewed themselves in some ways separate from other villages. This was exacerbated when religion was denounced and Marxism ascended after World War II. When the United Nations partitioned Vietnam in 1954, the majority of these Catholic villagers moved south. This was an individual evacuation by foot or bicycle or boat. The new government of South Vietnam did little more than suggest areas where the refugees might settle. Two of these areas were around the towns of Vung Tau and Phan Thiet, where these refugees settled as fishermen and farmers. These locales are where many families in Versailles today came from.

An elderly wife, whose husband was serving in the army, told of leaving her village with her relatives and children:

At that time we were too poor, so we had to go. We took a bus to Ninh Bình. After 11 kilometers, they didn't let us go, then we had to walk. During this time I gave birth [1954]. I walked holding my daughter and a straw mat. We drank the water from the fields and slept in the roadside houses. We went to Kía before reaching Hanoi. In Hanoi, we were provided food, rice, dry fish, fish sauce. After three days, we departed for the South. In the South at that time, planes were incessantly flying above. After several days, they took us to Bình Dân Hospital. After several hours there, they said Bá Tá nh also provided shelters then we were] walking to Bá Tá nh. After several months there, we went to Chí Hòa.

Interviewer: You mentioned that you were on the bus, they didn't let you go. Who were they?

Elderly woman: The Viet Minh. They didn't let cars through anymore. [So we] started walking. (translated from Vietnamese)

Defeat in 1975

The Vietnam War escalated over the next twenty years; then in 1975 the army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam started a surge and overran South Vietnam. Many of these villagers (i.e., the parents and grandparents now in Versailles) fled in boats, were picked up by U.S. ships, and were carried to refugee camps and life in a new country. The Vietnamese population of New Orleans are the children and grandchildren of these double refugees - first within their own country and then to another country.

In my opinion, I recognize that the biggest change of my life was the year 1975. That year changed our lives drastically because we were going in one direction, and coming here the difference was going in another direction. Therefore, we see that in our lives. According to me, I realize that life in the year 1975 was the biggest life change. We had also experienced the time of migration in 1954 - that was also a major change, but it wasn't an upheaval like the year 1975. Because we had to change from that country to another, converting to a different country, language, and entire way of life. That was the biggest life change. Compared to the hurricane, to us that was just a familiar event, because we had experienced storms when we lived in North Vietnam and here [in New Orleans] as well. (elderly man, translated from Vietnamese)

Another elderly woman compared disasters in this way:

Interviewer: Another question is: between 1975 event and Katrina, which was more frightening?

Elderly woman: 1975 event was very worrying and frightening, Katrina was, too. It was horrible to hear about it. Hope no more Katrina, so frightened, gusty wind, flood.

Interviewer: So you are more frightened at Katrina?

Elderly woman: 1975 was horrible, too. Mass shelling, corpses everywhere.

Interviewer: So which one were you more frightened?

Elderly woman: Both, so frightened.

Interviewer: Was there any difference in the community between before and after Katrina?

Elderly woman: It was sad. Neighbors left. All houses were flooded. I was happy when people little by little returned. (translated from Vietnamese)

An elderly couple remembered the day that they left with other family members:

Husband: In the year 1975 . . . I was at home, and I saw the circumstances that would make it impossible to stay at home. I have an eldest child who had already made a family, and his in-laws had a boat. During that time, my eldest and his wife had just given birth to a baby the day before.

Wife: On Saturday. We went on the boat on Sunday.

Husband: When the time came, my grandchild was born on the middle of the day of [April] 28th. On the 29th, my son took his wife and child out to the boat. I did not have the intention yet of leaving immediately, but my son-in-law told me at that time, "Now you must leave with us, to watch over the baby with us." Because I love my children, I felt strongly compelled to go. It was mandatory to go. So we went into the boat of my daughter's father-in-law and left together with them. During that time, it was also a little difficult leaving, but thanks to God, we were able to have a peaceful journey. When we arrived at [the city of] Vũng Tàu, we didn't know where to go. All of the groups of boats, about a thousand, were also listlessly parked beyond the waves on the shore of Vũng Tàu - I just remember that, being outside Vũng Tàu and we had not landed, also desolate, not knowing where to go. We landed the boat there and slept there. We slept for about a night, and in the morning, the communists had already come into . . . Vũng Tàu. And they took it apart with great strength, and many groups of boats quickly fled. We fled far out in the sea and parked the boat there. We were very lucky that there was Father Thắng, who is from Vũng Tàu and also knows English. Therefore, Father Thắng took out a [2-way radio?] . . . and somehow, he was able to catch a wavelength from a [U.S.] ship from all the way outside in international territorial waters. From that far away! At that time, Father Thắng talked to the ship, so they sailed to the location and it met us in about five hours. When we boarded the ship, everyone wanted to be in the front. There were some people who fell into the water, but luckily, they [the ship] were able to pick them up. We did not lose anyone. During that time, they allowed women and children to board first. All of the men boarded after. We [men] remained behind until 2 or 3 A.M. when we could finally board the ship. I don't remember the name of this ship, but this ship carried about 7000 people . . . .On April 30th, they had orders to return [to the area]. They returned again to pick up more refugees, and then they left . . . . They told us that this ship was used to transport goods, so the ship didn't have any food or drink. I didn't understand that they were able to call a helicopter to bring rice, but it still wasn't enough to eat. The deck of a ship was like about 120 people, they only gave each person a small bowl of rice, and each bowl was only about 30 grams. That was it. When divided amongst ourselves, each person would only be allotted that small amount. So they saved the lives of everyone, and we spent seven days like this. We lived in a very miserable manner. Pardon me, I was so angry because I was starving. But God provided. When the ship landed at Guam, they then gave us food gradually, so we were relieved.

Wife: But at least they gave us something to eat. It wasn't to the point from dying of starvation.

Husband: But what they gave us wasn't nearly enough. It was when we arrived in Guam when we had everything we needed.

Wife: Bread with ham; I had forgotten how to eat! It was strange when we ate. I couldn't eat. So miserable! I wanted to eat rice. At that time, it was delicious to eat with the whole family. They would mix three bags of dried rice with dried fish, and we thought it was delicious. So delicious, oh my God!. . . I can remember that God gave us that. (translated from Vietnamese)

In addition to those who fled their country in 1975 in front of the advancing army, for the next fifteen years (1976-1990) many thousands more escaped Vietnam as so-called "boat people," secretly, in peril for their lives, and in unseaworthy boats. An elderly man, together with his wife, told of, first, enduring three years while he evaded the police and then of escaping in a boat with other family members:

Husband: In 1975, they disarmed our [army] unit but released me. Then they [the communist government] asked me to serve but I didn't. I tried to hide until my wife went to the south, then I went overseas. While others tried to escape overseas and were arrested many times, I was successful the first time. I left in the morning from Phuoc Dinh. I went with eight children and some of my brothers. We took off from Vung Tau to Phu Quoc then to Malaysia. We were admitted to the island, living there for 14 months then left for the U.S.

Interviewer: When did you go overseas?

Husband: In 1978. At the end of 1979, we arrived in the U.S.

Interviewer: Could you tell me about the overseas journey? Many people said it very difficult.

Husband: After we ran about 12 hours, we faced a big storm. Before the storm, we saw a Thai [pirate] ship. On my ship, I had some people in the army with me, my brothers and my son-in-law. We didn't have many weapons but had grenades and some guns. The Thai ship wanted to rob us . . . . They attacked us . . . , the ship engine was broken down but I fixed it and ran to Malaysia when the engine nearly didn't work. The Malay fishing boats towed us to the harbor. It was 7 pm, very dark. We knew nothing except they were Malay . . . Leaving the ship to my crew, I went inland. At that time, my English was not good and neither was the Malays' [English], but after a while they understood and called the police for help. . . . After 14 months there, we departed for the U.S. I think to somebody else this was very dangerous, but not to me, although I was worried but not tense. I only prayed, I lived with God, not afraid of anything.

Husband: In 1975, I hid in the jungle. People who were alive after April 30 wanted to capture me but couldn't find me. Police arrested my wife and second child and asked them to take me back. My wife said "I don't know where he is. Why don't you search for him?"

Interviewer: What did you feel at that time?

Wife: I was fearless.

Husband: She was fearless. (translated from Vietnamese)

2005 Hurricane Katrina

From our interviews, it is abundantly clear that comparison is key in evaluating a situation. The Vietnamese community in New Orleans had experienced disruption and trauma before Katrina. New Orleans had been sideswiped by a hurricane before but never so hard hit; therefore, most people in New Orleans were astounded - but the Vietnamese took another view. Catastrophic disruptions like Katrina were not new to their community, nor were tropical storms:

Interviewer: How is Katrina compared with hurricanes in Vietnam?

Elderly woman: Hurricanes in Vietnam are also dangerous. Had to chop the trees to strengthen the houses . . . .

Interviewer: In the North, did you experience any hurricanes?

Elderly woman: Yes, three hurricanes in a week.

Interviewer: Three in a week?

Elderly woman: They swept everything away, no vegetables; we had to cut the banana tree trunks to eat.

Interviewer: Did you evacuate at that time?

Elderly woman: There was no place for evacuation.

Interviewer: How did you survive?

Elderly woman: Stayed, tried to strengthen the house with chopped trees. No place to go.

Interviewer: How about food?

Elderly woman: Not much, we had chickens so ate them in 7 days.

Interviewer: Which are worse, hurricanes in the U.S. and in Vietnam?

Elderly woman: We had cars here and we were welcome everywhere. It was much better. (translated from Vietnamese)

The experience of the hurricane caused many Vietnamese to see their family narratives in new ways, causing identity updating and the revising of family and community roles, which in turn has spurred a much, much greater sense of family cohesion, community involvement, and a perceptible difference in participation in local and national government.

A young woman who became the head the leading community development organization said:

I think you hear it from a lot of seniors where they were like, "Oh, this is nothing compared to the Vietnam War." Of what they have been through, migrating from the North Vietnam to South Vietnam, stuff like that. So I think this was just kind of like we are small potatoes to them. I think they have been through worse. People will tell me stories where they rode on a boat from North Vietnam to the Philippines, and it was almost full, in a big ocean. But this [Katrina] was like a luxury to them. (Laughs) I think they thought of it as a vacation that they needed to take, you know, and couldn't take.

These family members have dealt with this crisis by making it familiar through the use of family narratives of past disasters. The crisis that Katrina brought on caused these Vietnamese-Americans to reassess their identities, especially in terms of their material life goals and their family relationships. This is in line with the principles of respect for family, for the elders, and for their Vietnamese heritage which permeate Vietnamese culture. But the crisis of Katrina also updated their identities to encompass a wider city/state/national identity and to become much more active in important ways in their much larger community.

Interviewer: Is there anything you'd like to say to the youth, such as to the generation of your children and my generation? Is there any message you'd like to say?

Elderly man: Well then, we would like to say: our lives were in fact very strenuous, indeed it was tricky, but we strived very much to connect, and we wanted to leave something special for all of the youth after us, especially for our children in the family. With all of our hearts, we advise our children this: you must try. The first is that you must get an education. Search in order to understand to live in the future - every time, in different ways, and in life changes. A life change cannot change a generation. Therefore, you must learn very much to bring you towards the future. In the cases in which someone does not strive to learn, on the whole, that person will be pushed behind and will not be able to advance in the next life. Also, thank God. Of our children, some of them also strived [and] have also influenced some of the younger people today. I also thank God because of his guidance. As for us, truthfully, we are very weak. It's not possible for us to have enough strength to guide our children to goodness. Thanks to God for watching over and helping for us. Now, we wish and want the youth after us to strive, to build goodness and a brighter future. (translated from Vietnamese)


The author wishes to express her sincere thanks to Professor Mark Van Landingham for the opportunity to participate in the KATIVA-NOLA Project, to Professor Mai Do for graciously allowing the use of her data in this article, and to both of them and the entire KATIVA-NOLA team for many helpful discussions. I would like to express my gratitude to the Keller C. Professorship of Mark Van Landingham (Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine) and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation (through Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation) for funding to the oral history project, whose data is used for this research paper. Special thanks to Cam-Thanh Tran, Mai Do, and the interview team, who conducted the field work under this project. Our work is supported by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, The National Institutes of Health (R21HD057609 and R03HD042003, Mark J. VanLandingham, Principal Investigator), The Thomas C. Keller Professorship, and Tulane University's Research Enhancement Fund. More information about our project can be found at our website:


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Kathleen Carlin is an anthropologist in New Orleans. This article first appeared in Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 21, 2011.