Vietnamese turn lemons into lemonade in The Big Easy

In Vietnam, the people who settled along the Mekong River lived with floodwaters for centuries. It's the world's 10th largest river, flowing from high in the Himalaya mountain range more than 2,700 miles to the South China Sea.

Millions farm in the river's fertile flood plain, especially in the delta. When the monsoons hit or the Himalaya snow pack melts swiftly, they watch while their crops, homes and belongings are swept away. Then, they start over.

The Vietnamese are a resilient people. Those who escaped the Communist takeover in 1972 and settled in New Orleans show the same determination in the wake of devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina ruptured levies and inundated The Big Easy with up to 10 feet of water. Since then, life has been anything but easy there. But while much of the area remains in ruins, the Vietnamese section of eastern New Orleans is rebuilt and once again a vibrant neighborhood with thriving shops and stores.

In a special report, NBC's Dateline reported that 90 percent of the city's Vietnamese-Americans returned to their devastated neighborhood. Even more astonishing, they recaptured and rebuilt their part of town despite the government.

First, city officials wanted to turn their neighborhood into open space. Located on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by canals, city officials worried that the area could be flooded again when the next Katrina rolls in. But the Vietnamese, led by Rev. Vien The Nguyen, pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, convinced the city council to give them back their quarter.

Second, in order to restore power, they had to convince the electric company they would have a sufficient customer base. They made their case, and the lights came back on. Third, the city created a huge landfill in their neighborhood for the disposal of Katrina debris. Rev. Nguyen, joined by a cadre of young people, is fighting city hall to remove the dump before its toxic wastes seep into the canals.

The people of New Orleans have been handed cartloads of lemons. The Vietnamese community there is finding ways to turn them into lemonade. Remarkably, they are not waiting for the city, state or federal government to solve their problems. They came together, organized and started over again-just like they did so many times back in Vietnam when the Mekong River flooded.

The Vietnamese in New Orleans are what America is all about. Their determination, hard work, and ingenuity are what make our nation the greatest country on earth.

This story demonstrates what resilient and creative people can accomplish if government creates the right environment. But these days, government is more about telling people what they can't do, rather than helping them accomplish something on their own.

Government has its role, but it cannot do everything. Just look at the billions of dollars in tax money that federal, state and local governments have thrown at New Orleans, and problems there are still overwhelming.

Too often, politicians are elected based on promises of new government programs or the money they can bring home. But when it comes to restoring communities in the wake of a natural disaster, huge, inefficient, remote and cumbersome bureaucracies cannot compete with the knowledge, commitment and capabilities of the local people.

Our elected officials would be wise to look at what the Vietnamese community has accomplished in The Big Easy. They pulled together and got the job done.

Government can help, but it can't provide the will, determination and innovation that comes from within people.

Don C. Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business.


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