Hurricane Katrina

Boat People SOS offers aid to Vietnamese in dire straights

BILOXI - If there is a line between poor and desperate, Hurricane Katrina smashed it for Le Nguyen and her husband Chau Nguyen.

The Nguyens lost their home, car, worldly possessions and sense of self-reliance to the storm.

Worst of all was what the post-hurricane chaos did to her unborn twins.

"I lost them," Nguyen said Wednesday through translator and case worker Bao Le at the Vietnamese service organization, Boat People SOS. She bowed her head and started crying before continuing.

"They didn't survive," Nguyen said. "They were too weak and couldn't sustain... I didn't have much energy."

Nguyen cried again, and said she would not have any more children.

The Nguyens' story is an extreme example of the tribulations of the Vietnamese community at large, but local Vietnamese said it is indicative of the tremendous problems many in the normally self-sustaining community have endured since Aug. 29.

Shortly after the storm, the Sun Herald profiled the Nguyens while they were still stranded aboard their wrecked shrimp boat on the Industrial Canal.

Le, who believes she is in her mid-30s but is not sure because she was orphaned at a young age, and Chau, 51, were being helped at the time by FEMA, the Coast Guard, the Red Cross and other service organizations. Yet somehow things got worse and their struggle to maintain their own health may not have been the worst of it.

The Nguyens slept under a bridge at Exit 38 on Interstate 10 for several weeks until a FEMA trailer was finally delivered to their leveled home, Le said.

By scraping together loans and grants from friends and Boat People, Nguyen said they finally got their boat out on the water to start shrimping.

Though they were able to earn a few hundred dollars here and there - enough to pay back many of the loans - several important pieces of equipment on the boat broke and before long the bank was calling in its big loan, said Thao Vu, the Nguyens' case-file manager at Boat People SOS.

Boat People came through and put the bank at arm's length again for the Nguyens, but now they are almost right back where they started: a leaky boat, a mountain of debt, no home, no steady income, unfilled prescriptions and only the hope of shrimping getting them out of bed each morning to face the day.

Vu said she sees many cases like the Nguyens' and her job and that of her agency is simply to guide them forward as best they are able.

"With the hurricane, it's like you make a little step forward and then a big backslide," Vu said. "Most of us lost our jobs. Every major aspect of our lives has been affected. Most of my clients' homes were destroyed. They only have a slab left."

Vu said the hope is there still, though, and even in the case of the Nguyens, she believes life will somehow go forward.

Le Nguyen still manages to smile sometimes.

She broke out with an ear-to-ear grin Wednesday when she saw Raymond Turner. The construction worker at the Hard Rock Casino site is near where her boat is docked. Recently, he gathered some coworkers to help her and her husband weld parts of their boat.

"Hey, this is Mississippi," Turner said. "They needed some help, so I helped."

Le said that is exactly what she needs right now.

"Once I get my boat fixed, I can take care of myself," Nguyen said.

If you'd like to help

Boat People SOS needs help in the form of volunteers, translators and donations.

To volunteer your time or make a donation, call (228) 436-9999, or write to: Boat People SOS, 833 Vieux Marché Mall, Biloxi, MS 39530. E-mail:

About the agency

Boat People SOS is a national Vietnamese community organization formed in the late 1970s to give the Vietnamese community in America important help navigating bureaucracy and myriad social services available to them.

After Katrina, they became such a vital lifeline to the local community that Boat People's headquarters decided to open a branch office in Biloxi in March.

Their success at helping the community navigate the post-storm chaos of FEMA applications, government grants and so on has brought them an unexpected consequence.

"There have been times we've had several non-Vietnamese people in here at one time," said Thao Vu, a native Biloxian who has been a case worker for Boat People since the agency opened.

Vu said she believes word of mouth has increased the flow of non-Vietnamese.

Vu points to the story of an elderly black lady from Hancock County - where a majority of the non- Vietnamese clientele seem to be coming from - who came with her granddaughter to seek help.

At first, the granddaughter thought she would be wasting her time opening a case file with Vu, but after watching Vu help her grandmother successfully, she called to start one of her own.

Vu said Boat People will always focus its efforts on the Vietnamese community, but it will not and cannot close its doors to anyone.

"In social work, you have to have a compassionate heart," Vu said. "You can't exclude anyone."