Hurricane’s Community Rescuers Stretched to Breaking Point By BRIAN SHOTT Pacific News Service

Tuesday October 11, 2005

After Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast, the nation’s ethnic media tracked the grassroots efforts of ethnic communities to find and shelter their own. Now, ethnic media editors and activists report, those community networks are strained to the breaking point.  

Giao Pham, associate managing editor for Nguoi-Viet Daily News, traveled to the Gulf region shortly after the storm. Pham reported for the Westminster (Calif.)-based paper on a Vietnamese mall in Houston that became a meeting place for storm survivors. From there, many Vietnamese sought shelter in area churches and convents.  

Today, “Vietnamese are still living in churches and temples in Houston and Baton Rouge” and resources are stretched thin, Pham said in an interview. Pham says he spoke recently with Father Hung of St. Le Van Phung Catholic Church in Baton Rouge. “He told me that since the hurricane, the church has spent about $20,000 extra in utility bills and other expenses” to house about 300 Vietnamese evacuees.  

Temple and church leaders, Pham stresses, remain firm in their commitment to provide shelter. “They know these Vietnamese families can’t stay forever, but they are waiting for a sufficient policy from the federal government” before sending any families onward. Church and temple leaders “all say that,” Pham says.  

Minh Thu Lynagh of Greensboro, N.C., calls herself a “professional volunteer” who went to Biloxi, Miss., and other Gulf cities about a week after Katrina. Lynagh, who helped Vietnamese boat people resettle in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s as a public health worker, confirms Pham’s view of growing pressures at the grassroots level.  

“I’ve talked to some people in churches and nonprofits and they’re totally exhausted,” she says. “Their staffs are small.”  

Syndicated black media commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson points to the irony that millions of dollars in disaster-relief donations and taxes for homeland defense have not reached effective, frontline relief efforts.  

“You hear stories about the southern part of Louisiana—the Creole, Cajun, Native American communities and small towns—getting no help from the Red Cross and FEMA,” Hutchinson said in an interview. Still, some black churches and citizen volunteers have done a “marvelous job” even without “a nickel” from federal agencies, Hutchinson says.  

The Vietnamese fisherman community on the Gulf Coast, activist Lynagh says, “has very low education, even in Vietnamese. They didn’t even know the difference between the Red Cross and FEMA.” Many, she says, have no bank accounts.  

Lynagh says she and other Vietnamese activists have workable plans to link Vietnamese communities across the country to help with mid-term relocation and long-term employment of storm survivors. But “with no money, you can’t get any money and can’t achieve those goals.”  

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Afro-American titled “Help Me!,” Toni Gaines and Warren Newton pled for funds for their former pastor, the Rev. Lowell Case of St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, La., whose church is aiding evacuees.  

Twenty to 25 evacuees are staying at parishioners’ homes, Case said in an interview. “In my house I have a family of one of my priests staying with me. Five, six people, it changes every day.” The church’s school is now completely full with new students displaced by the storm.  

“We’re at the max in class size,” Case says. “We ran out of book bags, and then received a donation of 150 book bags.  

“We have enough to make payroll this month and the next,” Case says. “I don’t know what the long view is. We’re just doing it day by day.”  

African American media have tracked the important role of the black church in hurricane relief efforts. But mainstream media are focusing not on the distribution of aid and federal funds, but on sensationalized stories of “wild gangs” and the “urban menace,” writes Dwight Cunningham in a report for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a federation of more than 200 African-American newspapers. Meanwhile, “black households across the nation are dusting off spare rooms and sending Moneygrams to displaced family members,” Cunningham writes. “No doubt, people will need to be buried, yet there will be no money to bury them.”  

For evacuee Tang Hui-Wen, who worked in the kitchen of a casino in New Orleans and has temporarily relocated to San Francisco, local community organizations have been more helpful than the federal government so far. According to the Singtao Daily, a Hong Kong-based Chinese-language newspaper that followed Tang’s story, after negotiating a maze of aid and vocational agencies Tang has found hotel housing through the Red Cross for only 14 days. He’s scrambling to find a job in that time.  

“Some help is better than nothing,” Tang told the paper.  

Hispanic media are also watching the ripple effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Rumbo, a Spanish-language newspaper chain based in San Antonio, Texas, reports that one Texas school district gained 110 students in a single day. “It remains unclear who will cover costs for the students,” the paper writes. “Local officials say they are not taking costs into account for the time being.”  

Despite the stresses on aid providers and storm evacuees, both helpers and survivors are persevering, ethnic media reports. Vietnamese activist Lynagh, who says she was inspired by the dedication of Red Cross workers, says, “The Vietnamese people are so resilient. We were in a war. We were refugees before. We will rise again.” For the Rev. Lowell Case in Baton Rouge, it’s simple. “I know that Providence will provide,” he says.