Reverend Luke Nguyen is hastily stuffing a white cleric’s collar around his neck as our car edges closer to his latest nemesis. “They don’t like it when I come here,” he says, pointing to the looming gates of the Chef Menteur Landfill–a sprawling waste site buried in mountains of hurricane debris. Father Luke has been battling the dangerous, unlined dump from the day it opened near his Village de l’Est neighborhood in New Orleans East in February, and he’s braced for another standoff.
The security guard takes one look at the feisty priest and quickly retreats. Father Luke shrugs; city officials have been backing down ever since he began leading thousands of Vietnamese residents back to rebuild east New Orleans–the last area to dry after Katrina’s floods–a month after the storm.
“I came back on October 2 with a permit; then the second week a few of us came back to live,” Father Luke remembers back at the rectory of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. “On the third weekend of October 2,000 parishioners came to mass, with no lights. We served 3,500 egg rolls. That’s how you get people to come back.”
Getting people back, he declines to mention, also meant breaking the law. The resettlement of New Orleans East was civil disobedience, a mass act of defiance against Mayor Ray Nagin’s orders barring residents from returning to great stretches of the city. But the fishers, factory workers and grocery owners of Village de l’Est came back anyway, 3,000 in all–and, without fanfare, the city caved. Water and power lines were rebuilt, schools have been rehabbed and planners are now finishing blueprints to revive the two-block business district, for the Mayor’s review.
Few places devastated by Hurricane Katrina have a success story to tell like the tightly knit Vietnamese community of New Orleans East. But in many ways, Father Luke and the outlaws of Village de l’Est symbolize a gritty, grassroots movement that has grown and spread throughout the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina.
It’s a movement without the luxury of high expectations. Many of its people are still deeply wounded by loss, in a place where people’s patience is fraying or gone (a mood expressed in New Orleans by the recent rise of racist graffiti and bumper stickers, like Go Back to Houston). The lives of many Katrina activists are tied up with day-to-day struggles for survival, recovery and dignity, while they strive to keep their eyes on the prize of justice for all. They’ve been blown apart from each other, with more than 200,000 evacuees still scattered across the nation.
But the Katrina movement has also scored surprising victories, even if it has had to settle for merely derailing the worst of what New Orleans writer Jordan Flaherty calls the “orgy of greed and opportunism” unleashed by the storms. It has also inspired ordinary people to become extraordinary leaders, and awakened a new generation of activists in the South and beyond.