NEW ORLEANS — Every day at 9 a.m. the Mary Queen of Vietnam community center opens its doors to distribute 25 food vouchers. Several weeks ago people started lining up at 5 a.m. Now the line forms at 2 a.m.
This is not the life these proud fishermen envisioned when they settled in eastern New Orleans from Vietnam, but it is reality in the aftermath of the oil spill in the Gulf. Asian-Americans constitute about one-third of all commercial fishermen in the region. Today, many endure the long wait outside the center just to put food on the table for their families. Many more leave empty-handed.
Not all hands are idle. Some are working on the cleanup. But in the past three months, more than 800 have turned to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corp. for assistance.
The demand is so overwhelming that the Rev. Vien Nguyen worries his organization will run out of money in September, cutting off a vital charitable service to those in need.
Making matters worse, commercial fishing might no longer be an option for months or years. It’s why Nguyen is placing his bets on a project called Viet Village, a cooperative urban farm developed with Tulane University. The 28-acre farm, adjacent to the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church and community center, was first envisioned in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The farm project is more important now given the severity of the oil spill. Nguyen said he has studied the Exxon Valdez spill and, based on the ecological damage to Prince William Sound in Alaska, he’s convinced the local Vietnamese community won’t be fishing anytime soon. That’s why he’s turned to farming and other forms of food production as long-term solutions for the community.
The local community is ready to go to work clearing land and constructing the farm. But before Nguyen can break ground, he must first cut his way through a wall of red tape.
The obstacle here is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The agency is no stranger to criticism in Louisiana. Last week the New Orleans City Council condemned the Army Corps for its sluggish response to requests for permits to undertake spill-recovery projects. Now it’s standing in the way of Nguyen’s farm.
A man-made, 80-foot-long trench with running water gives the Army Corps veto power over the project. “We bought the land, but the previous owner dug a trench to drain the water,” Nguyen said. “That turned it into jurisdictional wetlands.”
Col. Al Lee, who also is responsible for approving oil spill cleanup projects, told Nguyen he would need to purchase wetlands as a tradeoff — a mitigation process the Army Corps must follow under the law. That would cost approximately $380,000 — money Nguyen doesn’t have.
He visited Washington, D.C., recently to plead his case before the Environmental Protection Agency. But with the clock ticking and hope of an Army Corps waiver fading, Mary Queen of Vietnam might have no other option than to buy the land.
Nguyen is anxious to get started so he can employ members of the community to clear the site, construct farm plots, build paths and bridges, dig reservoirs and test soil. Once it’s done, there will be five 1-acre commercial plots for lease, smaller community garden areas, a farmer’s market to sell goods and a livestock farming operation to raise chickens and ducks.
The farm project has the support of famous New Orleans chef John Besh, who would like the farmers to grow produce and raise livestock for his local restaurants. Viet Village also has received multiple awards for its design and has the backing of the Vietnamese American Service Agencies, Louisiana State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Montana Environmental Study Program.
How could a small trench disrupt such a promising project? It has left Nguyen frustrated but determined to see the project through to completion.
It wasn’t easy rebuilding the community in the years after Hurricane Katrina. It took two years before the first supermarket reopened in New Orleans East. Until then, the nearest grocery-shopping was 23 miles away.
Nguyen said the community cannot afford to wait. People need jobs now to pay for food, health care and other essentials. He has a plan to help but remains stymied by the government.