By John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom
August 30, 2007
After traveling by car from Washington DC to California and back, my Vietnamese-born wife made an unexpected reflection about a segment of America’s population and culture. She talked not about the diversity of El Paso and its neighbor in Mexico, Juarez. She had nothing to say about the green wonders of the San Joaquin Valley, the majesty of the Rocky Mountains or the magnificence of the Mississippi River.
She wanted to talk about the politically taboo subject of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi and race.
When President Bush visited the victims of Hurricane Katrina on August 29 to assess the region, the progress and what needed still to be done, he participated in a moment of silence for the more than 1,600 souls lost during the hurricane and its aftermath. My Vietnamese-American friends observed that Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans – at the exact moment of the president’s participation in the “moment of silence” – chose to participate in what they called a “moment of noise.”
The mayor went to a “bell ringing” in honor of the souls lost, I explained, an event just as somber and significant as the president’s event.
My immigrant friends didn’t all see it that way.
The diverse city of New Orleans and the surrounding hurricane ravaged area is partially rebuilt. This makes for both “good news” and “bad news” stories on the two year anniversary of the catastrophe.
Cokie Robersts, herself a native of the Gulf Coast, observed on National Public Radio that a Vietnamese-American community she visited had been completely rebuilt. She marveled at the fact that the houses, the church, and practically all the businesses of this community were rebuilt and in service. Then she said, the adjacent “other community” remained destroyed. In fact, she said, this neighborhood’s ruined homes had been removed and sea grass had taken root and overwhelmed the area. Only one or two houses had been rebuilt.
The marsh grass, Ms. Roberts explained, was the only thing thriving in the neighborhood next to the rebuilt Vietnamese-American area.
Ms. Roberts, and other nationally recognized news experts, also observed that much of the tenor of the two year anniversary of Katrina was one of rancor and blame. Many agreed that everyone knew President Bush and his administration were unprepared for the mega-storm and have failed miserably since. Democrats and the Congress deserved criticism too, for not allocating sufficient funds to rebuild faster or more completely. To many people, there was blame enough for just about everyone – everyone that is, in the government.
My friend, Chi Nguyen, who like many Vietnamese-Americans came here to America to escape communism after 1975 when Saigon fell, said this to me: “My mother walked from North Vietnam to South Vietnam pregnant with my sister in 1954 when the communists forced the French out of the north. She fled communism to get to freedom and freedom of religion. My parents fled South Vietnam in 1976 to get to America, the land of freedom, freedom of choice, and freedom of religion. My parents are gone now but after Hurricane Katrina we had but one option: to rebuild without complaint. The government would never have saved us as well as we could save ourselves.”
Cokie Roberts – along with just about every other nationally recognized newsperson or commentator – didn’t mention this story or anything like it for fear of being called tone deaf, politically incorrect, a moron or worse: a racist. The story to be told is that some of New Orleans has been rebuilt by noiseless, determined people of many cultures and backgrounds. Other parts of New Orleans and the surrounding area remain in ruins or even overgrown.
To the immigrant Vietnamese-Americans, refugees from the land of their birth and proud to be free in America, the choice after Katrina was an easy one. Many missed both the president’s moment of silence and the mayor’s bell ringing because they have moved on, rebuilt and were at work on August 29 this year.
The noisemakers awaiting redemption by the government, my immigrant friends told me, may face many years of suffering and waiting no matter who they blame and who runs the government.
It seemed to me that the quiet army of immigrant and other American ants we observed who had already rebuilt with their own sweat and the help of others would probably be better off.
John E. Carey is the former president of International Defense Consultants, Inc. and a frequent contributor to the Washington Times.