Disaster in Another Language

The Oil Spill May Hit the Gulf’s Vietnamese Community Hardest


On a seared Monday afternoon in mid-June, the fishing dock in Port Sulphur, Louisiana was disturbingly quiet. The boat slips were full, a bad sign at what should have been the height of the fishing season. The place was nearly empty of people. A group of five BP-contracted cleanup workers lazed in the shade waiting for orders from higher-ups. A couple of US Fish and Wildlife Service guys loaded up a boat with cages for capturing oil-soaked birds. It was Day 55 of the oil spill.

The only people who looked busy were the Nguyen and Vu families. Despite punishing temperatures and humidity (the heat index was above 100 degrees), they were using the fishing closure as a chance to do some boat repairs. The families had removed the trawling riggings from their boats and had the large, L-shaped aluminum frames splayed out on the oyster-shell parking lot to cut and re-weld. Better to stay busy than just sit around, they had apparently decided.

Although much of the media coverage of the BP blowout’s impact on fishing communities has featured folks with surnames like Broussard, people with the name of, say, Tran would fit just as well. Because in the last 20 years, Southeast Asian fishermen, mostly Vietnamese, have become a dominant force in the region’s fishing industry. According to one estimate, a third of the commercial fishing vessels in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi are owned by the Southeast Asian community, and they bring in a disproportionately high percentage of the area’s total catch. The oil spill threatens to ruin all of that.

The human casualties from the BP blowout are, by now, well known. Hotel owners and charter boat operators from Grand Isle, Louisiana to Pensacola, Florida have taken a hit as summer tourists avoid the area. The closure of a third of Gulf fisheries has put shrimpers, oyster farmers, and other fishermen out of work, or else forced them to take cleanup jobs. Native American communities in southern Louisiana, many of which rely on fishing to keep food on the table, are threatened with hunger.

Each group has its own unique problems. But the BP disaster has been especially cruel to the Vietnamese. That’s because many Vietnamese – in contrast to their neighbors, who often work off-season in the petro-chemical or construction industries – rely almost exclusively on fishing and seafood processing to make a living.

“We have only one kind of job,” said Tuan Nguyen as he and his brother and his uncle worked on their rigging at the Port Sulphur dock. “We don’t know how to find a job. That’s it. We cannot go out no more. We are closed. Stay home. I’m no money so I’m sad ‘cause no money.”

The Nguyens’ plight is compounded by the language barrier. Social service groups in the Gulf say that the Vietnamese community is having a difficult time navigating the bureaucratic currents of claims, loans, and regulations. Many experienced fishermen haven’t been involved in the cleanup operations because they speak little English. According to Kaitlin Truong, chair of the Biloxi-based organization Asian Americans for Change, only 10 percent of the Vietnamese who signed up for cleanup operations were being called to work by BP.

“There’s a desperate need for information,” Truong said, explaining that the Deepwater Horizon response information is mostly online and in English. “A lot of these people don’t have computers.”

photo of a family on a dock near a fishing boatStacy RevereHuu Nguyen (second from left) and relatives are shrimp fishermen in Gautier, Mississippi who have
been put out of work by the BP spill.

At the same time, because they operate entirely in a cash economy, many Vietnamese fishing families have found it impossible to claim compensation from BP. They don’t have the documents to prove their income, and so they are being left out of the $20 billion aid fund.

“A lot of fishermen are scared and confused,” Truong said. “They’re afraid their careers are probably coming to an end and they won’t be able to fish anymore. For those who are older, training for another career is unlikely.”

Vietnamese began arriving in the Gulf region about 30 years ago as refugees from the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. Many sought to use their traditional fishing expertise to start fresh in a new country. Some found a kind of cultural affinity with the Catholic heritage of Cajuns who also have a history of displacement. They launched businesses and bought homes and boats and, over time, built a thriving community. In 2008, a Saigon-born resident of East New Orleans, Anh “Joseph” Quang Cao, became the first Vietnamese-American elected to the US Congress.

The relentless Vietnamese work ethic, combined with a commitment to family and loyalty to each other, has won them a place in the tight-knit fishing communities of the Gulf. “The Vietnamese will work what’s called ‘clock’ – that’s 24-hours,” said Nichole Benoit, a commercial fisherwoman and the dock clerk at Port Sulphur. “They don’t stop. They’ll stay out there three or four days, whereas the American shrimpers come in every night. It’s almost as if they have something to prove, they work so hard.”

According to Benoit, the Vietnamese account for a little more than half of the local shrimpers in Port Sulphur – but they bring in about two-thirds of the catch. They simply work harder, and longer, than the Louisiana-born. “We have one couple in their seventies. They go out there, just husband and wife, and they’ll stay out there for several days and come in with 50 to 60 boxes. We’ve had them come in with 75 to 80 boxes. That’s a lot of shrimp. Seventy-five boxes is 7,500 pounds of shrimp.”

“I wish I could speak their language,” she continued. “They are just hard-working, simple people. They are very loyal. They bring us food: egg rolls and this kind of tortilla with bananas in it.”

A minute later she said: “If, God forbid, they told us we couldn’t fish in this area for the next ten years, they [the Vietnamese] would be lost.”

Throughout the Gulf region, the BP oil spill has caused a wave of deep-felt anxiety that differs sharply from the adrenaline-rush fear that comes with a hurricane. While terrifying, a hurricane is, in its own fashion, a predictable force of nature. Gulf residents know how to clean up and repair, and they take their lumps with a certain sangfroid. “You knew when that was over,” said Jeannine Braud, a resident of Grande Isle. “You heard the hammers.”

The oil spill, in contrast, has been like a slow motion disaster – and coastal residents see no end in sight. A sense of disempowerment makes the insecurity harder to bear. Among the Vietnamese and Cajun fishermen, self-sufficiency isn’t just a nice-sounding notion or an aspirational ideal – it’s a cultural touchstone, the very basis of the much-heralded resiliency that motivated them to rebuild after Katrina and to recreate their lives after being displaced from their homes, whether that was in the 1770s or the 1970s. For such people, the BP blowout has been so terrible because it has put their fates in the hands of others: BP claims adjustors, federal officials, cleanup workers. There’s no hammer they can pick up to fix their lives themselves. “It’s the uncertainty that gets to you,” Benoit said. “That’s the scary part. The difference between this and Katrina – Katrina came and left. This is just lingerin’ and goin’ on and on.”

Outside in the sun, working on their boats, the Vietnamese felt the same way. “It’s hard – we don’t know what happened,” Nguyen said. “We don’t have no money for this year. Maybe next year, too. We don’t know.”

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