Coastal Vietnamese Community Leans On Faith, And Each Other, To Rebuild After Harvey The cohesion and resilience of Rockport, Texas' Vietnamese-American community, which numbers about a thousand, may help it recover from the storm's destruction.
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Coastal Vietnamese Community Leans On Faith, And Each Other, To Rebuild After Harvey

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Coastal Vietnamese Community Leans On Faith, And Each Other, To Rebuild After Harvey

Coastal Vietnamese Community Leans On Faith, And Each Other, To Rebuild After Harvey

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now let's go to Texas for a few minutes. It might seem like it was a lifetime ago, but it was just two weeks ago that Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. Our reporters have been trying to get to as many places as they can to report on what's been happening. John Burnett found himself in Rockport, Texas, surveying what remains of St. Peter Catholic church. That church has long served the large Vietnamese community there. And John tells us it's going to be a long road back.

LEAH OLIVA: This used to be our church. And it was built here, I think, in the early '90s. I haven't been inside to see the devastation, so.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Leah Oliva is a catechist and secretary at St. Peter. She steps into a church sanctuary that looks like a bomb went off inside.

OLIVA: Careful.

BURNETT: A gulf breeze comes through a gaping hole in the east wall. Most of the stained glass windows are blasted away. Somehow, St. Martin de Porres survived. The hymnals and prayer books are swollen and discolored. But the massive wooden carving of Jesus on the cross hangs over the altar undisturbed. Father John Tran surveys the wreckage.

JOHN TRAN: It's sad. It's sad. It will take a while to recover because...

BURNETT: It's going to take a while to recover.

TRAN: Recover, yeah. But I know we have to accept the nature of it. We still believe God will help us, you know?

BURNETT: OK, you still believe God will help you.

TRAN: God is present here. We lost everything.

BURNETT: The cohesion and resilience of this coastal Vietnamese-American community - that number is about 1,000 - may help them recover from the storm's destruction. The popular fishing village with its famous Oak trees looks like it was fed into a shredder.

The Vietnamese have faced adversity before. They came here 42 years ago after the fall of South Vietnam with very little. In the early days, they worked on shrimp boats. Leah Oliva came to Texas from Saigon when she was six with the larger migration.

OLIVA: When they came here in order to get themselves up and running, to actually build a boat, they went into their family nucleus to borrow money instead of going outside somewhere else. They borrow money from each other and then they repay them.

BURNETT: With the Gulf shrimp industry in decline, most Vietnamese sold their boats. They opened nail salons, got teaching certificates and engineering degrees and built bait stands. Sunlight streams through a hole in the roof of the Fulton Harbor bait stand onto empty tanks of croakers, piggies (ph) and mullet. Owners Long Nguyen and his wife Nelda Salazar are still assessing the damage.

NELDA SALAZAR: The pilings in the bottom might be damaged. So we're going...

LONG NGUYEN: We're going to start all over. Start all over.

BURNETT: You're going to rebuild your whole bait stand?

NGUYEN: Yeah, yeah. This the first building going to come down.

BURNETT: Did you have insurance?

NGUYEN: No.

BURNETT: As for rebuilding the Vietnamese community, Nguyen says the only leader who can guide them through the difficult years ahead is Father Tran.

NGUYEN: It's up to the preacher. He's the one that pulls everybody together.

BURNETT: So it was with the large Vietnamese population in New Orleans East after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, almost all have returned and everybody's working again. After the storm, Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church was a central gathering place. And the priest emerged as a leader.

Mark Vanlaningham at Tulane University has studied the robust recovery of Vietnamese in New Orleans. He says the elders carry with them the immigrant experience from 1975.

MARK VANLANINGHAM: We're a group that's going to make it. We're a population that overcomes obstacles. And I think that self-concept played a really big role in making - kind of giving them a collective self-confidence, if you will, that they're going to make it through.

BURNETT: The Vietnamese community on the Texas coast may have this advantage as well but for the fact that their church has been destroyed. Father John Tran says they plan to rebuild St. Peter from the foundation. John Burnett, NPR News, Rockport.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "MERLION")

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