Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Vietnamese families ride out Katrina on their shrimp boats, ready to start over, again

September 5, 2005

By JONATHAN TILOVE;

NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE |

In 1979, Jane Ngo and her family escaped from Vietnam on a fishing boat with nothing but the clothes on their backs. An American dream later, the Ngos have the clothes on their backs, plus those on the clothesline stretched across their 99-foot shrimp  boat, the Queen Elizabeth.

And that’s it.

Hurricane Katrina took everything else, turning the Intercoastal Waterway where the mostly Vietnamese fleet of Gulf Coast shrimp boats took refuge into a little Pearl Harbor of vessels strewn and sunken, scuttling the prospects of an industry and a way of life already caught between soaring gas costs and the plummeting price of cheap imports.

“We hope we survive,” said the unsinkable Ngo, her boat nestled next to those of her brother and cousin.

They all lost their homes and cars in neighboring Biloxi, where most of the shrimp fleet was ordinarily docked. Ngo’s little shore-side store and deli was damaged, then looted. All they have left are large notes on their boats and a livelihood on hold for the foreseeable future.

“This year’s over,” said Thomas Thai, Ngo’s cousin.

“It’s gone,” said Binh Truong, Ngo’s brother’s stepson, meaning forever.

Like the other Vietnamese shrimpers, the three families, three generations, rode out Katrina on their boats, together. What unfolded for seemingly endless hours last Monday was a harrowing life-and-death sea battle worthy of Melville.

Their boats moored but engines running, the captains wheeled against Katrina to keep from crashing into each other or cutting loose.

“She (Katrina) would go this way, and they would go that,” said Ngo, swaying and gesturing toward her husband, Thong Ngo.

“He’s a good one,” she said. ” A good one.”

The Queen Elizabeth – Ngo named it out of her love for English history – somehow managed to reel in another shrimp boat surging toward the bridge where a jumble of wrecked boats now rests with an uncertain number of people on board.

When Truong saw another boat spinning loose of its moorings and threatening to draw boats in its path into its frenzied vortex, he defied Katrina’s rage, leaping into the waters and swimming to shore where he retied the boat’s mooring rope to a tree along the banks.

All but two of Thai’s seven children (the two live in Texas) weathered the storm by his side, including a daughter who was supposed to return home to California days earlier, but would not leave.

None of his children are shrimpers. He is glad. “It is too hard,” he said.

In the calm after the storm, Truong, who escaped Vietnam as a small boy and speaks in the “yes sir,” cadences of the Gulf Coast, resorted to the more mundane heroism of scrounging for food and water to keep the families alive.

They were, it seemed, marooned here in their safe harbor with nothing.

Truong had left shrimping to become a casino dealer – a soft and easy life soured only by the anger directed his way by players on a losing streak. But, when the shrimp business started going south after Sept. 11, 2001, he returned to help.

Shrimp is America’s most popular seafood, but with increasingly inexpensive imports now accounting for 80 percent of the U.S. market, the numbers for American shrimpers no longer add up.

The biggest sources of foreign shrimp are Thailand, China, and with no small irony, Vietnam.

“Vietnam,” said Thai, “has more shrimp.”

In December, the Commerce Department slapped tariffs on shrimp imports from China and Vietnam after determining that those countries were dumping their product on the U.S. below cost to increase their market share. American seafood companies objected.

It’s greed, Truong said of the opposition to tariffs. What about protecting the nation’s food source in a time of terrorism? What about thinking about Americans first?

“They’re hurting their own country, hurting their own people to line their own pockets,” he said.

“We’re doomed,” agreed David Bieller, whose small shrimp boat, Lucky Angel, rested beside Thai’s and Truoung’s.

Bieller had never met them before, but credits them with keeping his boat safe during the storm. Bieller, a Louisiana Cajun, was not surprised by the generosity of the Vietnamese. Earlier in the year, Lucky Angel sprang a leak and began to sink. He sent out a distress call. “It wasn’t the Americans who came to my rescue. It was the Vietnamese fleet.”

After the hurricane, Thai ran a line from his generator to Bieller’s boat to power his little air conditioner and TV. When Ngo cooked their first meal after Katrina, they brought Bieller and his wife, Theresa, aboard for dinner.

The food – a beef and noodle soup – was unfamiliar to Theresa, who has suffered a series of recent heart attacks, and had sent their newly adopted baby away to safety before Katrina.

“It was the best food I ever had,” she said. “I cried the entire time I ate that soup. I’ll never forget these people.”

In turn, she has made her cell phone – which miraculously never stopped working – the Vietnamese’s link to the outside world. Her husband borrowed a car so he could drive Ngo’s nephew, Thanh Huynh, to the airport to fly home to Chicago. Huynh, who had stayed in Biloxi instead of on the boat during the hurricane, ended up perched in a tree, hanging on for four hours for dear life.

After the storm, Ngo’s father, who is in his 80s, suggested to his daughter that “maybe we go back to Vietnam.”

No, Ngo said. She likes it here.

She renamed herself Jane because, she said, “I have a lot of good friends around here, so I go get American name so they can call me a lot.”

She and her husband bought their first wooden shrimp boat with money they saved when he worked for an American shrimper and she picked crabmeat for $3 an hour.

She would soon start cleaning up her store. Theresa Bieller has offered to help.

“This is a good country,” Ngo said. “At least they don’t let you die.”

Written by jonathantilove

August 2, 2022 at 1:30 am

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