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The Vietnamese in East Biloxi

part 1, 2

East Biloxi covers about two square miles. It includes Biloxi's downtown, casinos that ring the waterfront, residential neighborhoods, docks for the commercial fishing industry, and seafood processing plants. Before Katrina, East Biloxi had about 3,500 households. Many were single-family homes.

Roughly 70 percent of East Biloxi's Vietnamese live in areas that the Living Cities plan designates for parks and casinos.

About 80 percent of East Biloxi's buildings were damaged by Katrina. Half were "substantially damaged or completely destroyed," according to a report Living Cities published in July.

Because much of East Biloxi is a flood zone, the Living Cities plan says new development in more than half the area will have to be raised at least 10 feet off the ground - and in some cases much higher. That will make rebuilding East Biloxi's trademark bungalows too expensive for many low-income residents.

"How will an elderly person climb 12 feet up in the air?" Brigham asked rhetorically. "A better choice is available and ready."

Living Cities proposes higher-density housing for much of the area, including town houses, apartments and senior citizen residences. Some residential buildings would be constructed above a floor or two of parking space. In theory, that would allow storm surges to wash through the lower levels but leave the living areas dry. The lowest-lying areas of East Biloxi would be reserved for casinos - also built above parking garages - and public parks.

The problem is, those low-lying areas are where most of East Biloxi's Vietnamese population live. Uyen Le, a spokesperson for the National Alliance of Vietnamese Service Agencies, says roughly 70 percent of East Biloxi's Vietnamese live in areas that the Living Cities plan designates for parks and casinos. She worries that the Vietnamese are invisible to East Biloxi planners.

"There's no recognition of the disproportionate social impact on the Vietnamese community," she says. "There are a lot of cultural resources here, the church and temple, and a bunch of Vietnamese stores, too."

Nearly a year after Katrina, Le organized a meeting for East Biloxi's Vietnamese to hear about the Living Cities plan, and other rebuilding plans coming out of City Hall, in Vietnamese. But when it was time for the 30 or so residents to respond to the plan, they had little to say.

"The audience focused primarily on home-building," Le later wrote in a report, "with most of the comments focused on people lacking resources in order to do new construction and to make major repairs on badly-damaged homes."

Le says most of the participants were still waiting to decide whether to rebuild in East Biloxi. Their decisions will depend mainly on how much, if anything, they can get from the federal government to rebuild, and how much they can get from developers if they sell.

City Councilman Bill Stallworth, who represents part of East Biloxi, is not waiting for city plans or word on federal funding to kick-start rebuilding in his community. Stallworth is leading a coalition of charities and non-profits in rebuilding housing for low-income homeowners in East Biloxi.

The group is racing the clock. New FEMA flood regulations will take effect in the coming year, requiring many homeowners to build higher off the ground. But people who can rebuild before the new flood maps take effect can stay at the current elevation. Stallworth's group hopes to rebuild thousands of East Biloxi houses. He says they've managed a few hundred so far. "My goal is to produce a house a day," Stallworth says.

And it's not just about getting people back in their houses. For Stallworth, it's also about making it harder for condo developers to buy up big blocks of property in East Biloxi flattened by the storm.

"I want to seed that area," says Stallworth. "I want to seed it with houses so that it breaks up the idea that you can come in and buy any one big tract of land for cheap." It's a chess game, he says, protecting low-income homeowners from getting overpowered by market pressures.

If the idea of seeding works, then prospects for the Vietnamese community may be good. While many Vietnamese residents are still trying to figure out whether they can rebuild in Biloxi, several Vietnamese businesses have already reopened. More are on the way. But An Lee's not so sure. She says the newly re-opened Asian food market already has plans to relocate - to North Biloxi. Just like her, the store is following its customers away from the Gulf shore.

So organizers like Nguyen Dinh Thang are also racing the clock. He's trying to revive the Vietnamese community in East Biloxi before it disappears. "We're facing a lot of challenges," he says. "There are developers who want to move in; there are residents who want to move out. But there are also those who want to stay, because this is their community; they spent their life here. This is their second home after Vietnam." Thang is trying to make it possible for those who want to stay, to stay.

"They'll rebuild their homes; they'll rebuild their lives; they'll rebuild their businesses here. Otherwise, there will not be a community here anymore."


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