Autumn Tet passed quietly over the Big Easy last Sunday, and the city’s Vietnamese-Americans felt the good fortune of celebrating the moon festival in the adopted home they’ve fought relentlessly to hold onto.
The blood moon illuminated one of the “good news stories” of New Orleans’s post-Katrina narrative. The “rebound” of the Vietnamese refugee community that first settled in New Orleans East four decades ago. But the restoration of their neighborhood, Versailles, caps a cascade of disasters over the past decade: the storm, then the oil spill, then financial collapse—and that’s just the latest chapter in an epic saga of migrant survival.
According to researchers, regional population recovery has been uneven: A year after the storm, the return rate overall was merely 44 percent, with many of the area’s old residents too poor or traumatized to return. Yet the mostly Vietnamese-descendant Asian population reached “69 percent of its pre-Katrina levels by fall 2006,” and by spring 2007 surged to more than 90 percent.
But local activists will tell you their bounce back goes beyond “cultural” explanations for who sinks and who swims in the flood’s aftermath.
Although research suggests relatively low rates of post-traumatic stress in the community—suggesting a certain emotional resilience associated with the Asian-immigrant stereotype—the real story is more complicated. Despite lack of evidence of trauma, Daniel Nguyen, an organizer with Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVCDC) says the storm still “shapes the hegemonic narrative of our current work and existence.”
And there’s work to be done. There remain critical infrastructure gaps, such as food insecurity, with a lack of local grocery stores, language barriers, and isolation from social-service institutions.
“Issues that we’re dealing with, Katrina didn’t create them,” Nguyen explains. “Katrina…exacerbated them to a breaking point, essentially, and it was for the first time, one of the few moments in New Orleans history where these issues were brought to light in the public eye.”