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Vietnamese in O.C. Fear for Gulf Coast Relatives

Times Staff Writers

All week long, from their home in Garden Grove, Mai-Han Dinh and her parents have watched news of Hurricane Katrina with growing panic.

Dinh, who just graduated from UC Irvine, went to high school in Long Beach, a hard-hit Mississippi town. Her mother has cousins who fished for a living in Vietnam and became Gulf Coast shrimpers and fishermen when they fled their country after the communists took over. They’ve been able to reach no one.

In Costa Mesa, Nena Abramson is desperate for news of her sister, Tam Nguyen, who refused to evacuate New Orleans with the rest of her family.

Throughout Orange County, which is home to the nation’s largest Vietnamese community, many of the 150,000 Vietnamese Americans like the Dinhs and Abramson have relatives and friends in the Gulf Coast region, which is home to about 30,000 Vietnamese.

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At hair salons on Little Saigon’s Bolsa Avenue, radios have been tuned to Vietnamese American stations, which are carrying live reports. Local Vietnamese American newspapers have sent reporters to the South. People have been desperate for news, desperate to find ways to help other Vietnamese -- especially those destined to start life from scratch for the second time.

That’s what Tam Nguyen, 42, a teacher’s aide, will have to do, if she’s safe, said Abramson, 37. She and her sister were girls when they left Vietnam with their parents.

This week, Abramson flew three of her sister’s five children to California from Dallas. The other two are staying in Texas with friends. Meanwhile, her sister’s husband, Bao Vu, a civil engineer, is driving aimlessly around Louisiana, hoping that his wife will call his cellphone, Abramson said Friday.

She said she and her three nieces -- 13, 18 and 24 -- keep the television and the radio blaring constantly, praying for word.

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So does the Dinh family, although they get frustrated.

“I never see any Vietnamese on TV,” Dinh said, “so either they all left early or they’re all dead. I’m hoping they’ve all gotten out.”

Every day since Monday, Dinh, 24, has tried to reach friends from her high school in Long Beach, Miss. She’s also tried to contact the nuns at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Long Beach, a convent with which she was involved. In the Gulf Coast, the Vietnamese community is heavily Catholic, and many of the nuns at Our Lady of the Holy Rosary are elderly Vietnamese, Dinh said. So far she hasn’t reached anyone.

Meanwhile, news has spread throughout Little Saigon about the plight of a church in the heavily Vietnamese town of Versailles, about eight miles east of New Orleans. All week, they’ve heard that hundreds of people have been trapped in the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. They’ve been making calls, trying to get the people rescued.

Abramson said she thought her sister might have tried to get to the church to help.

“We’ve tried to contact the church and the priests there, but the phones don’t work,” she said.

Mary Queen of Vietnam is the former church of Dominic M. Luong, auxiliary bishop for the Diocese of Orange, who was the first Vietnamese-born priest to be named a bishop in America. Luong spent 27 years as a priest in New Orleans before coming to Orange County in April 2003.

Since Monday, he said, he has fielded more than 700 calls from local Vietnamese Americans looking for news about their relatives.

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“They think I know everything. I’ve only been able to get through to one person in New Orleans,” he said Friday.

That person, a resident of Versailles, told Luong about all the people stranded there, so Luong said he called the Coast Guard. He said he thought that about 350 people had been rescued.

On Thursday, Luong went on Little Saigon Radio, appealing for donations for victims.

“Many of the listeners don’t have much, but they respond to charity very, very well,” he said.

In recent days, thousands of people have called local radio stations, looking for news and offering money, said Lac Tan Nguyen, vice president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California.

Plans for charity drives, meanwhile, were underway throughout Little Saigon, as the community tried to mobilize just as Vietnamese Americans have mobilized in Houston. Religious and community leaders have planned a meeting for next week to set up fundraising events.

Nam Loc Nguyen, a popular songwriter and emcee, gave 500 phone cards to Vietnamese American reporters heading to the area. He asked them to distribute them to victims. Already, one family has been reunited long distance through one of the phone cards, he said.

For one Orange County family, the anxiety turned to relief Friday when they learned that two missing relatives had turned up. One found his way to a relative’s home in Houston; the other was discovered at a hospital where he was being treated for a leg injury suffered when his shrimp boat was raked by the hurricane.

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“I couldn’t sleep. I was worried that they were dead,” said Phu Van Tran, 85, of Fullerton, father of the two men.

Vietnamese communities on the Gulf Coast grew quickly starting in the late 1970s, when Catholic churches played a major role in sponsoring refugees. Many Vietnamese fishermen, like Dinh’s relatives, found similar work along the Gulf Coast. But it wasn’t easy. A lot of native Cajun fishermen resented their presence.

In 1981, a Vietnamese shrimper shot and killed a white shrimper in Seadrift, Texas, in self-defense. In retaliation, the Ku Klux Klan torched two Vietnamese shrimp boats and held rallies in a campaign to expel the Vietnamese.

Since then, relations, while still sometimes tense, have improved significantly, said Hung Nguyen, president of the National Congress of Vietnamese Americans. Vietnamese Americans serve on the board of the New Orleans shrimpers’ association, he said.

Dinh’s mother’s cousins live in the Mississippi towns of Gulfport and Biloxi. Dinh said she guessed that the women and children would have evacuated with the storm warnings. But she said she was certain the men would have stayed with their boats.

“I think they all underestimated the storm. I’m worried they all got washed away,” she said.

For many former Vietnamese refugees, watching news about all the people the hurricane has displaced has brought back painful memories. Madalenna Lai came to the United States with her four children when she was 33. Thirty years later, she keeps thinking about that time as she watches the hurricane footage, she said Friday.

Fleeing Vietnam, Lai and her children spent four days crammed onto a small boat with 40 other people before a ship took them to Guam. The money she had tucked into her clothing was swept away in the water that sloshed through the boat. When she reached Pennsylvania, she had nothing but the clothes on her back, she said.

“It reminds me so much of what I went through,” said Lai, 62, a retired beauty school owner who lives in Pomona.

“I know how they feel. They are numb.”

Staff writers Nita Lelyveld, Daniel Yi and William Lobdell contributed to this report.


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