A line of jobless fishermen snakes out to the sweltering sidewalk from a small white-brick building where Boat People SOS, a Vietnamese-American advocacy group, is dispensing food vouchers.
Here in Bayou la Batre, Alabama, the BP Plc oil disaster that began in April with a rig explosion hit the area’s many Vietnamese especially hard.
There are an estimated 20,000 Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Add related jobs such as fish processing and oyster shucking, and the displaced Boat People account for one third to one half of all seafood-industry workers in the Gulf region.
Kim Thai, 44, came to the U.S. 19 years ago. In 2003, she moved her family to Bayou la Batre, where the climate is more like the South Vietnam coast of her childhood.
“One of the things I like about Alabama is that it doesn’t get too cold,” Thai tells me through an interpreter. “Another thing, the Vietnamese community sticks together and helps a lot.”
Boat People SOS in Bayou la Batre, one of four branches in the Gulf region, has distributed 65,000 pounds of food to more than 1,200 families, most of them Vietnamese.
A single mother of four, Thai was shucking oysters for a living when the oil rig went down. Her plan had been, as usual, to work as a deck hand on a shrimp boat for the summer season. It was canceled before it began. (The Louisiana fall shrimp harvest began Monday.)
Unemployed, she and her children, ages 9 to 17, have been subsisting on a $2,000 monthly payout by BP. The money isn’t enough to cover the bills, and it’s not going to get any easier when school starts. She would have made $4,000 to $5,000 a month as a deck hand.
“I haven’t seen the government do anything yet,” Thai says. “Just like Katrina, we saw the government talk about doing something, but no action.”
While the loss of income is the biggest problem for the Vietnamese, “the second biggest issue is mental health,” says Grace Scire, regional director for Boat People SOS Gulf Coast. When the fishing boats are idle and processing plants closed, men and women are stuck at home with mounting debts and no relief in sight.
“It’s really, really bad and I’m afraid it’s going to turn into domestic violence,” Scire says. “The tensions here are unbelievable.”
Many Vietnamese speak little or no English. The Amerasians (a legacy of U.S. soldiers), who were ostracized and banned from schools in Vietnam, aren’t even literate in Vietnamese. Retraining would be onerous.
“And what do you really train them in?” Scire asks. The Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians (Cambodians, Laotians and Thais) came to the Gulf because of the familiar climate, coastal life and the kind of work they know well. Now, says Scire, “their whole way of life has been turned upside down.”
Many Vietnamese were left out when BP hired fishermen to work on their own boats laying boom lines, transporting supplies or assisting with wildlife rescue, in part because of the language barrier.
Meanwhile, attorneys have descended on the crisis. According to Scire, many Vietnamese fishermen are signing papers they don’t fully understand and are vulnerable to exploitation. Stories abound of opportunists who demand fees from idled fishermen in exchange for boat jobs that BP had been allotting free of charge.
Only last week did BP issue an advisory to Gulf Coast residents, warning them of charlatans posing as BP personnel or its contractors in order to elicit these fees, or to extract personal or business information.
“We … want to ensure that everyone along the coast remains safe from any predatory or illegal actions that could diminish ongoing restoration efforts under way,” advised Mike Utsler, chief operating officer of BP’s Gulf Coast Restoration Organization. (The advisory appears in Vietnamese on BP’s website.)
Vietnamese-Americans in the Gulf have battled storms, discrimination and even the Ku Klux Klan, which harassed Vietnamese shrimpers in the early 1980s. They are survivors, and they will survive the oil disaster, though how and where they do that remains to be seen.
“People are just getting back on their feet from Katrina,” says Scire. “As much as they suffered through that, they always knew they could work. Now they don’t know that, and they don’t know if they should live here anymore.”