"I saw fishermen with tears in their eyes; they were punching walls," says Nguyen. "It led to domestic violence, stress, divorce."
Vietnamese refugees make up about one-quarter of the state's commercial shrimpers, according to the Louisiana Shrimping Association. They first began settling in the New Orleans area after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Catholic charities in Louisiana made a huge effort to settle the newcomers, many of whom belonged to a minority group of Catholic followers in Vietnam. Most refugees, like Sandy Nguyen's father, worked as commercial fishermen in Vietnam and felt at home in the Louisiana swamps. They could keep their way of life without needing to adapt or learn much English.
The Vietnamese community grew slowly in the following decades, as refugees petitioned to bring their relatives to New Orleans. From 7,700 local Vietnamese in 1980, the community numbered more than 17,000 in 2013, making it the largest Asian demographic in the metro area.
The Vietnamese shrimpers share a tight bond and often view outsiders with suspicion. They were initially reluctant to speak with us during our recent visit to New Orleans. But after a phone conversation and in-person meeting, Sandy Nguyen graciously invited us to join a group of about a dozen shrimpers at the boat blessing. It wasn't until after we feasted with them on roast pig, pickled chicken, and especially steamed turtle—a "delicacy"—that they began to open up.
Its insularity has caused problems for the community at times. For decades, the Vietnamese shrimpers lived mostly in a cash-based system in the working-class neighborhoods known as New Orleans East. That setup became a problem after Katrina, when many fishermen couldn't get federal disaster assistance because they hadn't registered their businesses with the IRS. It also complicated efforts to prove their incomes years later when filing claims against BP for damaging their livelihood.
Sandy Nguyen, 41, has spent most of her career trying to break down the old attitudes and encourage fishermen to grow their businesses. A graduate of Tulane University Business School, Nguyen started a nonprofit in 2010, the same year as the oil spill. Coastal Communities Consulting provides business advice and technical skills to thousands of fisherman. In the off-season, her office is busy running citizenship, literacy, and computer classes.
"It was a very underserved community," says Nguyen, who arrived in New Orleans from South Vietnam with her parents and two siblings when she was 6 years old.
In her office, she points to eight filing cabinets labeled "DWH." Deep Water Horizon. She's helped 120 families get a total of $25 million from BP.
"Look, here's Mark Clark," she says, pulling out a file from one of the cabinets. "If I hadn't met him at a bar, he would have missed out on $400,000. He didn't know about the claims. He's illiterate."