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Fishermen struggle to rebuild boats, lives after Katrina

Neang Pum stands in front of her fishing boat damaged by Hurricane Katrina. 
A UMNS photo by John Gordon.









By John Gordon*

Nov. 15, 2006 | EMPIRE, La. (UMNS)

Residents of this South Louisiana parish left Vietnam and Cambodia to start new lives in the U.S.

They were working hard and making a good living as commercial fishermen when Hurricane Katrina damaged their homes and boats.


Case worker Phu Nguyen (left) and Margaret Nguyen, operations manager for Boat People SOS in Gretna, LA, review case files of Vietnamese-Americans seeking
assistance after Hurricane Katrina. 
A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

More than a year after the storm, the refugees are still working to rebuild their boats and their lives with the help of Boat People SOS, a social service organization partially funded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

The boats and homes of about 200 commercial fishermen in Plaquemines Parish were directly in Katrina's path.

"I have to repair my boat as soon as possible so that I can make money to recover my life," said Neang Pum, a shrimper who came to the United States from Cambodia in 1981.

The 64-year old received financial assistance from the Return to the Sea program operated by Boat People SOS, but she is still working to make her boat seaworthy. Pum said it may be weeks or months before her boat is repaired.

In the past, she has earned thousands of dollars in a single fishing trip-money she said she desperately needs to build a new house. "Going to the sea, using our boat, we can make good money," she said. "And as soon as we have good money, we can buy a house, easily."

Pum now lives in a FEMA trailer, but she did not qualify for a Small Business Administration loan or other conventional federal aid to repair her boat.

Plenty of shrimp

Ironically, after boats were destroyed, shrimp became abundant in the Gulf of Mexico. The high tides of Katrina swept shrimp into areas of the Gulf where they were not previously found.

"They found themselves in habitats that were near optimal in terms of growth and survival. We had huge numbers of shrimp available to harvest," said Martin Bourgeois of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Baton Rouge.


Repair work continues on fishing boats in south Louisiana damaged by Hurricane Katrina more than a year ago. A UMNS photo by John Gordon.

"The problem was you had certain communities that were devastated. It was a total collapse of the infrastructure," he said.

Some people will never return to the fishing business, Bourgeois said. "There are a number of boats that are up on a hill, with no government program in place to be able to return boats back to water."

Refugees flee Southeast Asia

The refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia came to the United States in search of freedom and a better education for their children, said Margaret Nguyen, operations manager at the Boat People SOS office in Gretna, La.

Nguyen did not know whether the children of the refugees would continue in the commercial shrimp business.

The life of a fisherman is difficult. They will often spend several days on the water, working day and night to bring in their catch.

"It's very, very hard work," said Tran Yen, a friend who is helping Pum repair her boat. "But I don't know of many jobs like shrimping."

In some years, as much as 45 percent of the shrimp harvested in the Gulf of Mexico comes from Louisiana. The shrimp is served on dinner tables from the southern states to Washington, D.C.

Funds for Katrina victims

Boat People SOS is one of a consortium with nine other organizations, called Katrina Aid Today, headed by the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The organization received a $66 million grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security. The grant consists of international donations that were received after the hurricane.
The goal of Katrina Aid Today is to help 100,000 storm victims rebuild their lives.

* Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or

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