Disaster Recovery and the Vietnamese Community in New Orleans

April 22, 2014

This feature is part of a new RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the ongoing research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

The damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina unevenly impacted the residents of New Orleans along racial and class lines. While many scholars and politicians have focused on the lack of federal aid to low-income black neighborhoods in the wake of the disaster, Visiting Scholar Mark VanLandingham’s research examines a lesser known community—that of the Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in New Orleans in the 1970s. In his time in residence at the Foundation, VanLandingham is investigating the sources and limits of resilience within the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans, with a special focus on the community’s recovery during the post-Katrina era.

In a new interview with the Foundation, VanLandingham discussed the impact of the hurricane on this community, looking in particular at the combination of cultural and material advantages that may have aided the disaster recovery of the Vietnamese.

Q. Your research examines the Vietnamese immigrant community, which was largely overlooked in the post-disaster coverage of Hurricane Katrina. You found that overall this group fared better than other groups in the recovery. How do we measure “recovery” and what did the Vietnamese community’s post-disaster recovery look like in comparison to other groups in New Orleans?

David Abramson at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and his colleagues break down post-disaster recovery into 5 dimensions: housing stability, mental health, physical health, economic stability, and social role adaptation. Data I’ve been collecting with my colleagues and students at Tulane indicate that the Vietnamese have fared better than other groups on all of these. Rates of return to their community, for example, are much higher than return rates for blacks and whites. Measures of post-Katrina mental health are stronger for the Vietnamese compared to their similarly-affected neighbors.

Q. The pervasive “model minority” myth (and new updates to that myth such as Amy Chua’s Triple Package) could lead to a tendency to attribute the relative success and resilience of the Vietnamese in the wake of Katrina to cultural traits. But your research indicates that other factors, which you call “cultural confounders,” may be at play. Can you explain what these are?

I’m still working through my analyses, but it already clear that the Vietnamese enjoy many advantages that their similarly-affected neighbors do not enjoy. Some of these are advantages are common among immigrants, e.g., arriving with unusually high human capital. Others are related to living in an immigrant enclave that is more secluded, homogeneous, and easily organized than other communities that flooded. Others are related to how the Vietnamese are perceived vis-à-vis other minorities.

Q. At the same time, your findings also indicate that some cultural attributes of the Vietnamese community could have aided in their speedy disaster recovery. What are these traits, and how can identifying them help inform policy decisions related to disaster recovery?

That’s right. The fact that the Vietnamese are faring better than other communities that had similar levels of flooding, similar housing stock, and similar socioeconomic status raises the intriguing question of whether there might be cultural attributes that distinguish them as well. But a case for culture is very difficult to make. First, many social science concepts are abstract and hard to measure, and culture is especially so. Second, I think in many instances an argument for culture is a “punt” when other explanations fail; it can be a bit too easy. Third, and related to the second point, a cultural explanation runs the risk of being tautological, i.e., the Vietnamese are resilient because they have a resilient culture. Fourth, it can be offensive to celebrate one type of culture at the expense of another. It can smack of blaming the victim.

All that said, I still see value in trying to zero in on a few key attributes related to perspective and worldview that both distinguish the Vietnamese from other affected groups and also might serve them well during a time of crisis. I think that culture is a reasonable umbrella to put these attributes under, even if only a few of them have anything to do with being “Vietnamese”. Instead, I think some of the most important cultural attributes that play a role in their post-Katrina recovery have more to do with a sense of common identity that results from their exodus from Vietnam to the U.S. and their prior recovery from that set of challenges. This strikes me as a kind of “collective self-confidence.” I see this attribute as a product of their recent history, not as an essential attribute of “being Vietnamese.” And I don’t see it as necessarily enduring. Like most communities, the Vietnamese enclave in New Orleans will undergo fundamental changes in the decades ahead, and will surely be characterized by a different set of attributes down the road. And like most immigrants, the attributes that describe them down the road will surely have increasingly less to do with where they came from and more to do with where they live now.


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