A Center of Solace for Families

By Evelyn Nieves, Washington Post Staff Writer, September 9, 2005

Storm Takes Community Back to Its Beginnings, but Buddhist Temple Offers Hope

BILOXI, Miss., (USA) -- It took 30 years for Vietnamese refugees to turn a homely corner of Biloxi into a thriving neighborhood -- and 13 hours of Katrina to send them back to the day they came here.

Much of the neighborhood is either leveled or broken beyond repair. The My Viet Supermarket is gone. The Chi-Kim-Lien fashion boutique -- gone. Gone too is the marquee restaurant, Xuan Huong, which took up half a block of Division Street and brought tourists into the neighborhood from all over the Gulf Coast.

Xuan Muise, owner of the Xuan Huong restaurant, was also the neighborhood's mayor and mother hen. Muise, a spry woman of 78, belonged to the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants to settle here, in 1975, after she escaped from Vietnam in 1969 and landed in Southern California. She had visited Biloxi, thought the weather reminded her of her home country ("not too hot, not too cold") and helped the neighborhood grow up, taking people in and showing them the way to jobs and mortgages.

Her greatest pride was the Chau Van Duc Buddhist Temple. She spent 18 years helping to raise money for it and four years watching the temple go up. The temple, for many here, was the most significant symbol of the Vietnamese in east Biloxi, the sign that they belonged.

Chau Van Duc opened, unfinished, nearly a year ago. But the grand opening, with 53 visitors from around the country, 30 of them monks, was Aug. 28. More than 1,000 families arrived to join the celebration. A day later, the 53 out-of-town visitors survived Katrina's blows by punching a hole in the ceiling of the temple's storage closet and crouching in the crawl space under the roof.

Katrina beat up the temple, causing thousands of dollars in damage to a property that still owes the bank $100,000. But the temple is not destroyed. So Muise and other temple members invited people with nowhere else to go to stay there. While the sanctuary is mired in muck, about 15 families have been sleeping outside on the cool, stone patio. Others come by all day long, looking for food, water and hurricane news.

The people staying on the patio say they feel privileged to be here; they will stay put, even though there are beds at the shelter in the junior high school several blocks away.

Muise's daughter, Kim Weatherly, surmised that none of the families want to be shuffled around like refugees for the second time in their lives.

"We've already been through that," she said. "I believe people don't want that to happen again."

Nhan Tran, who is 30 and has lived here all his life, said he and his parents have no plans to leave the temple patio, no plans really at all. "We don't have any family in other states," said Tran, who worked at the Imperial Palace casino, one of the 10 Biloxi casinos now closed indefinitely. Despite being raised in Biloxi, he speaks with a Vietnamese accent, no doubt from having lived in a neighborhood where Vietnamese comes first. It is hard, Tran said, to think of living anywhere else.

"We have food and water and company," he said, adding that the families spend their time chatting, trading stories and rumors about the plight of the Gulf Coast. They have not heard a radio or seen a television since the storm hit.

They are not the only members of this community cut off from the world. Families with houses barely standing are staying in or by them, with no radio or access to news. Thao and Thuyet Ngo and their three daughters, who live across the street from Muise's restaurant, are staying in front of an empty building next door to their damaged house.

"This is like being in Vietnam now," said Nga Pham, who is 15. Her father, Thao Ngo, fled Vietnam in 1976 and moved the family to Biloxi nine years ago. He said the family had no friends or relatives elsewhere in the United States. Nor did he know what was going on anywhere else on the Gulf Coast, he said. All he knew was that his family and friends were safe.

But others could not be sure what happened to those they know. Dunh Truong, a shrimper who came here from Vietnam in 1990, had weathered the hurricane in the ship he captains, the Blue Angel. It was docked with the rest of the Biloxi shrimp fleet in Back Bay, which Katrina did not spare. Truong saw sailboats fly through the sky and shrimp boats slam from one side of the bay to the other as he rode the hurricane "like a cowboy on a bull."

But he did not know what happened to his neighbors. Right after the hurricane, he climbed an embankment, got in his car and drove to Biloxi, to the temple.

No one knew the fate of the shrimp fleet, about 70 boats with 200 to 250 people on board. On Wednesday, Truong had his chance to find out. Coast Guard Port Security Unit 309, out of Ohio, was heading to the Back Bay to check on the fleet. It turned out that the only way for the shrimp fleet to leave the bay was closed, because the drawbridge that would allow the ships to pass through was blocked by hurricane debris. The shrimp fleet had been stuck in the bay for over a week, and the Coast Guard unit was taking them food and water. It needed a Vietnamese interpreter to ask what the crews needed, how many people were out there, who had died.

Truong left off helping clean up the temple and joined Cmdr. Andrew Scott McKinley and his crew as they went to visit the stranded shrimp fleet. He silently eyed the destroyed ships and boats on the way. The Coast Guard boat stopped at a ship with an elderly crew of four, another with a shrimper and his pregnant wife.

"Ask them if they know of people who died," McKinley urged Truong. The choking smell of death permeated the air. But no one could say how many people had perished. The pregnant woman said she watched one ship capsize with eight people on board, another with three. The elderly crew, on board the Captain Sen, had lost one of their three dogs when the hurricane tipped their boat on its side. Other people that Truong hailed had seen boats go down but did not know how many people were on them.

Rumors have been flying up and down in the Vietnamese neighborhood in Biloxi. But Truong had seen enough to tell his friends and neighbors what they might expect. He returned to Biloxi from Gulfport with a box of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). He would go back to the temple, prepared to tell his friends and neighbors some news.