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Vietnamese community struggles to rebuild in Biloxi, Miss.

BILOXI, Miss.—When Henry Huong Le took his first horrified look at the leveled neighborhood that had been the heart of the Vietnamese community here, one thought came to his mind: It was worse than Vietnam after the war.

Hurricane Katrina flattened scores of small frame houses and Asian businesses in a 12-square-block area. It destroyed the wharfs where Vietnamese fishermen docked their boats and the seafood plants that processed the shrimp they brought back, sometimes after months at sea.

Le, 48, the owner of a sandwich shop chain based in San Jose, Calif., returned to Biloxi after the hurricane to see what was left of the community he helped build. He helped found the first Vietnamese seafood processing plant here, and he owned 10 commercial and residential properties that were lost in the storm.

He struggled to hold back tears when he described the losses.

"There is so much destruction that you can't see on TV," he said. "In Vietnam a few houses burned, but most people had something to return to. Here, there is nothing to come back to."

Neither Le nor the handful of other volunteers helping the Vietnamese community are dwelling on the pain, however. There's too much to do.

A steady stream of Vietnamese residents, most of whom lost their homes and jobs, files through an office that Le borrowed from a local bank, seeking help in filling out forms from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Meantime, volunteers hustle to find doctors, lawyers and translators, and to organize food shipments and fund-raising drives.

Le, who lived in Biloxi for five years in the early 1990s, returned to lead what will likely be a Herculean effort to rebuild the devastated Vietnamese community. Many of the estimated 5,000 Vietnamese residents of Biloxi fled north or east to escape the storm, but more than 1,000 were trapped on fishing boats with no place to go. Another 200 homeless Vietnamese are camping out in the community's Buddhist temple. At least 2,000 have been displaced.

Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and across the country are rallying behind the people of Biloxi, Le said. A fundraising drive was held Thursday in San Jose for the Vietnamese families affected by the storm. Organizers hope to raise $100,000 for the American Red Cross.

Three truckloads of Asian comfort food and supplies—instant noodles, rice, soy sauce, bean curd and chopsticks—are in Houston, ready to move. But first Le has to find a place to warehouse them.

"There isn't a place to put them," he said.

Le was among the thousands of Vietnamese who escaped their country after the war. After three years in a Malaysian refugee camp, he landed in San Jose. Others settled in historic fishing villages along the Gulf Coast, from Mississippi to Alabama.

Many of those who went to Mississippi settled in Point Cadet, a peninsula in East Biloxi now ringed by oceanfront casinos. It originally was home to Yugoslavian and French families in the 19th century.

About 80 percent are employed in the fishing industry. The rest work in casinos and offshore oil rigs. Many are poor and uninsured.

Philip Tran and his wife and two children made it out of Biloxi before the storm and returned recently to the site where their house had stood. Amid the pile of boards, Tran's wife found the shattered glass frame that held a photo of her 2-year-old son. She cradled it and cried softly as she gently broke off the small piece containing her son's face.

Tran, who's lived in Biloxi for 21 years, said he doesn't know if he'll come back. "It depends on what the city does and it depends on whether there is work."

Several important Vietnamese landmarks survived the storm: the Church of the Vietnamese Martyrs, the Van Duc Temple and the statue of the female Buddha, "Quan yi," which graced the front of the temple. The temple was dedicated on Aug. 28, the day before the storm hit. Now it's a homeless shelter.

"The statue has significance to Vietnamese fishermen," said De Tran, editor and publisher of the Viet Mercury, a San Jose weekly newspaper, who's serving as a translator in Mississippi. "After the evacuation of Vietnam, many of the boat people at sea believed they saw images of her over their boats."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KATRINA-VIET

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050909 KATRINA VIET

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