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Still Down in the Bayou | The Nation

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Still Down in the Bayou

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Kay Steiger

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August 29, 2007

As Hurricane Dean hit Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, health professionals, volunteers, activists, and community leaders gathered at the Minority Women's Health Summit in Washington, D.C., to focus on health problems that disproportionately affect women. One of the panels, titled "From the Eyes of Women: Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience," was dedicated to giving attention to women who have responded to disaster. The panel was entirely composed of women of color--something you almost never see in Washington.

The panel opened with a prayer in French by Morning Dove Verrett Hopkins, who represented the Houma Nation of American Indians. "The hurricane did not just hit Louisiana," Morning Dove said as she showed slides of devastated home and lands occupied by Houma people. "It hit everybody, you know?" The audience responded with a resonant, "Mmmm-hm." She described a life of hardship, where she was forced to attend mission schools and forbidden to speak her native language. Today, despite the fact that the Houma people are recognized as a nation by the state of Louisiana, her tribe still isn't officially recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Houma people haven't recovered from Katrina. They are still in mourning in many ways, like so many others from the New Orleans area.

Recent articles in Time and National Geographic (among others) have shown some of the bureaucratic barriers the city faces as it tackles the ongoing reconstruction effort. The storm highlighted how disproportionately the black and poor were affected. Those earning less than 200 percent of the poverty line (about $40,000 for a family of four) made up more than 40 percent of those affected. Of the entire affected population, about 73 percent were African American, according to a congressional research report (PDF). But Morning Dove and her fellow Panelist Tram Nguyen of Boat People SOS, an Alexandria, VA-based group that works with Vietnamese immigrants, represented two groups of people often left out of Katrina stories: the Houma Nation and Vietnamese immigrants.

When Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, many of the region's Vietnamese Americans, most of whom immigrated to the harbors of New Orleans from Vietnam in the 1970s, spoke little to no English and didn't understand what was happening until it was too late. Their most reliable source of information was a radio station called "Little Saigon" that broadcast out of Houston.

Based in Washington when Katrina hit, Nguyen helped coordinate efforts to evacuate Vietnamese immigrants from the Gulf Coast. Nguyen said the phrase she kept hearing from friends and family in New Orleans in the midst of evacuation two years ago was "It's 1975 all over again."

Many Vietnamese immigrants didn't even have time to grab proper documentation, and it was destroyed in the storm. This made it even harder for them to get relief supplies. Relief efforts were also hindered by cultural differences. Executive Order 12898 was enacted in 1994 to cover the needs of low-income populations following natural disasters. It outlines procedures for families applying for and collecting disaster relief. Unfortunately, it assumes a traditional nuclear family structure and limits aid requests to one per household. Because many Vietnamese families live with several generations in one household, Nguyen said, they had one person requesting aid for eight to 10 people.

Not all of the problems faced by minorities in the aftermath of the story were bureaucratic, however. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of Katrina victims found that "stress took various forms and some were doing better than others, but many survivors were experiencing anxiety, depression, and problems sleeping and eating." Another major concern for survivors of a natural disaster is domestic violence. A disaster like Katrina can exacerbate an already bad domestic situation. Additionally, battered women's shelters usually aren't at the top of reconstruction priority plans, so even if women have a desire to leave a dangerous domestic situation they may have nowhere to go. Nguyen said that because of the cultural norms and traditions of Vietnamese culture, submissiveness in women may drastically increase the risk of domestic violence. Without immigration papers, these women may be afraid to leave their husbands, Nguyen said. She described this as a problem rooted in a culture of keeping personal problems in the private sphere.

Nguyen said that many Vietnamese Americans were struggling just to stay in their trailers. Morning Dove said many of her people were going through the same battles. "We want to come home too," she said. These audience members saw their families and friends lose homes and possessions. The emotional scars of Katrina may last even longer than the demolished homes.

The mourning period for those in the New Orleans area is nowhere near over. The recovery efforts will have to be conscious of including all groups affected by the disaster, and be sensitive to specific cultural nuances. Those like the Vietnamese fisherman and the Houma people--and others on the margins of the margins--will, like New Orleans' battered African-American community, wade though the nightmare of recovery for years to come.

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