Michael Luke / WWL-TV.com
NEW ORLEANS -- In a dingy alley tucked behind a strip mall at the end of New Orleans East, nearly each morning a tense crowd gathers early -- usually showing up before dawn -- hours before the Catholic Charities office opens.
The crowd of mostly Vietnamese fishermen and their families line up for a chance to get a $100 voucher for groceries that the charity will dispense. The office opens at 8:30 a.m. and usually by 9 a.m. the money for the day has been exhausted.
Those that win the lottery can only collect once a week, those that lose out will likely return the next day. This drama, the life of the idle fishermen, has played on repeat since oil began gushing from the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, fouling the waters and their livelihood.
On a humid gray Monday morning, Thai Than, 57, was one of those in line and his face wore the badge of frustration.
Than, who worked as a deckhand on a shrimper based out of Venice, said speaking through an interpreter, David Nguyen, that though he wanted to work and doesn't want help, there is no other work for him in the area.
Shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, Than, who immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1979, said the only thing he can do is wait.
'This is it,' explained Nguyen, 21, a volunteer from California. 'They have no other source of income right now.'
With no work, no income and families to feed and with only 25 vouchers for food available each morning, Nguyen said, tempers have flared at times and occasionally fights have broken out in the alley between the fishermen as they wait in line, as nerves fray and oil continues to spew in the Gulf.
Of those waiting in line in hopes of getting a voucher, emotions of fishermen ranged from apathy to anger to impatience to nervousness, and each day, as the oil continues to spew, tensions and stress continues to mount.
'Some people get really frustrated when they don't get a voucher,' said Nguyen. 'We've had a lotpeople come in and start yelling.'
A security guard was added outside of the office as a precaution.
Looking for help
The oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon came at a particularly tough time for the fishermen, as it interrupted what is normally the high point of the their fishing season.
'My staff recently encountered one fisherman who, like others, has plenty of time on his hands these days. When he tried to fish in violation of the ban, he got caught and ticketed by a state agent. Employment opportunities are limited for a lifelong fisherman with little education,' said a statement from Congressman Joseph Cao, a Vietnamese immigrant who escaped to the United States when he was 8 years old.
'While waiting on BP to call him for help with the cleanup, he joins others at th
e bars. Heavy drinking has led to violent fights with his wife. The other day, she and their children moved out of the house.'
Nguyen said Vietnamese fishermen have come from Mississippi, Alabama and Texas to get help from the small office in New Orleans, which also offers assistance to help pay mortgages, utilities, rent and medical bills.
'Another fisherman's dilemma is also typical,' said Cao. 'He and his family must now choose between what to keep: their home or their boat. BP is sending this family $5,000 a month, but that only covers boat insurance and docking fees.'
Cao made headlines when he suggested at a congressional hearing that a BP executive commit harakiri -- the ritual suicide performed by disgraced Japanese samurai -- for the company's bungled response to the oil spill.
The congressmen's harsh words for BP were likely borne out of anger of what he has seen in his district: 'I personally know two fishermen who've considered taking their own lives. I know of another who actually attempted suicide.'
Sipping a coffee and holding a stack of paperwork to try and prove his occupation as a fisherman, Lee Nguyen, 55 -- no relation to the volunteer David Nguyen -- said he could be making as much as $4,000 a week.
Speaking in a mixture of broken English and Vietnamese, married and a father of two, Lee Nguyen said that he has been working on fishing boats for 36 years in the Gulf, but now the oil has put him out of work, forcing him to come and try to collect a voucher.
Lee Nguyen said it has been very hard to get help since the oil put him out of work. Nguyen said his captain wouldn't sign the paperwork proving that he worked as a deckhand, which is required for him to get assistance, especially from BP.
In the nearly two months he has been out of work, so far Lee Nguyen said he has only received about $2,500 in assistance from BP. It hasn't been enough, he said, and he is worried that the money for the out-of-work fisherman will run out from BP.
Despite an influx of many Vietnamese to the Gulf Coast in the late 1970s and early 1980s, their home can still be very foreign to them. Many don't speak English, and language and culture barriers isolate the Vietnamese fishermen in the New Orleans-area and make it hard for them to comprehend what is going on with the spill.
Rumors of money from BP drying up spread among several people in the line and Lee Nguyen worried tha
t the oil conglomerate would go bankrupt. Becoming increasingly agitated, he wondered aloud how long it would take BP to clean the Gulf waters. David Nguyen tried to explain to him that BP needed to cap the well first, which continues to spew at the estimated rate of nearly 2 million gallons a day.
The first interpreter brought in by BP, according to David Nguyen, spoke a North Vietnamese dialect that many fishermen couldn't understand.
Working for BP as part of the Vessels of Opportunity program has been equally frustrating for Lee Nguyen, as he said the company hires the captains who own the boats, forcing him to hope that work will trickle down to the deckhands, like him, who are looking for work. So far, for him, it hasn't. The same goes for the other deckhand in the line, Thai Than. He asked David Nguyen if the $20 billion that President Barack Obama has set aside for the Gulf Coast would reach the deckhands.
'He says he wants to go fishing again, but it if doesn't open soon, he'll have to find other work,' translated David Nguyen.
Lee Nguyen smiled sarcastically and said he would work as a fry cook, cooking seafood locally, though he admitted it would likely need to be imported.
'Too high,' said Lee Nguyen of seafood prices.