Thuy Luu flashes a knowing smile across the office reception area of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church to her fiance, J.B. Nguyen, who's checking email on his laptop. Luu goes on to explain the couple's inside joke: They're getting married in November and are now waiting for another session of counseling administered by their priest, Father Vien Nguyen. The counseling sessions are required of all Catholic couples preparing to wed.
Luu's answer could also stand for the close-knit, church-going Vietnamese community anchored by the eastern New Orleans church. Despite high winds and massive flooding from Hurricane Katrina, this neighborhood of homes and apartments near Chef Menteur Highway along Alcee Fortier Boulevard and Dwyer Road is much farther along the road to recovery than similarly devastated areas. Forty-five of the 53 Vietnamese-owned businesses concentrated in the area are back, community leaders say, and roughly 95 percent of the homes in the area have been gutted. Beyond gutting, families like Luu's are already replanting gardens. Most credit the renewal to the determined, self-sufficient nature of the community as well as the church's leadership.
At the same time, the sad signs that permeate a city and region filled with debris, homeless citizens and broken spirits are found here as well. Pile upon pile of trash lines the neutral grounds of neighborhood streets. FEMA trailers, 199 of them, are parked on church land directly across Dwyer Road from the sanctuary. The day before Luu and Nguyen's counseling session, three machine gun-toting young men shot and killed two rivals as parishioners walked into church on a sunny Sunday morning. Though Luu called the killings "the acts of ignorant, stupid boys," the violence shocked the community, with many saying it illustrates the anger, angst and unease choking the city at large.
Immediately after Katrina, Luu and Nguyen had the added burden of not being able to find Luu's mother, who had been hospitalized for a long-awaited kidney transplant two days before the storm and then evacuated with her husband after Katrina. Neither parent speaks English, and for more than a week Luu and Nguyen waited anxiously for news of An Thi Tong's fate.
"I was freaking out," Luu says. "We were in Houston, watching all the terrible news. We thought there was no way my mom could have made it."
The couple gave Tong's Social Security number to the national headquarters of Nguyen's employer, World Financial Group. Within hours, the company relayed good news: Tong was recovering in a Houston hospital after being evacuated in an airplane to Baton Rouge, then driven by ambulance to Lake Charles and, ultimately, Houston.
After fighting so many battles since Katrina -- for Tong's life, to reopen their businesses and for the neighborhood's survival -- Luu, Nguyen and the rest of the Vietnamese community now face another battle: a landfill site established in April on nearby Chef Menteur Highway. Opponents in the Vietnamese community and elsewhere say the landfill was hastily created by Mayor Ray Nagin via executive order. They add that it's a toxic threat to citizens' health and environmentally ruinous to surrounding wetlands -- including the adjacent Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban refuge in the United States.
Dumping at the landfill, operated by Waste Management Inc. for the city, ceased under Nagin's order for the final week of the mayoral campaign. The day after he won re-election, dumping resumed. Legal and legislative battles over the landfill -- whether it should exist at all, and if so, under what conditions -- are expected to last the summer, if not longer.
"No question that, since he's won re-election, the pressure is off Nagin, so he allowed dumping to continue," says Father Nguyen, speaking from his office across a hallway from where Luu and Nguyen wait for his counsel.
A Nagin spokesman dismissed such allegations about political angles to the landfill, which hundreds of mostly Vietnamese residents protested on several occasions in front of City Hall in the weeks before the election. Additionally, many community members describe Nagin as sincere and responsive to their concerns about the landfill's safety during numerous meetings on the issue. The mayor's office released a statement that it has overseen, in conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a city-hired firm, testing for "air, water and waste characterization." The statement continues: "Awaiting the results of the test, the City of New Orleans will continue to have open dialogue with federal and state agencies and the residents of New Orleans East on the various issues regarding this matter."
But, in addition to immediate safety concerns about the landfill operating so close to his parish, Father Nguyen laments what the dump reveals about the city's attitude toward the Vietnamese community, of which he is the de facto leader. Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish is the headquarters for the Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East, and Nguyen says roughly half of his 4,000 parishioners live within a one-mile radius of the church.
"Is this a deliberate effort to keep us from rebuilding?" he asks. "This is how a self-sufficient, self-reliant community is rewarded for their rebuilding efforts? We use those canals to water our gardens, and now they are filled with poison."
Father Nguyen points out that self-reliance has always been a trademark of a group that has populated the area since 1975, when the Archdiocese of New Orleans worked to help Catholic refugees fleeing communism in South Vietnam. The community is often referred to as the Versailles community, a reference to the apartment complex created by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide housing, along with other forms of government assistance, to the Vietnamese forging a new life in America. Now, some community members resent the Versailles label, saying it's a reminder of the government assistance -- long since eschewed by this resilient community -- that marked the initial stages of settlement in New Orleans.
The spirit and strength that lifted the community in the past are what Father Nguyen and others say will help it win its latest battle.
"During 21 years of war in Vietnam, we were always having to evacuate and rebuild," he says. "Katrina is just another detail for us to deal with."
Community leaders have already looked beyond the rebuild phase and to the future. They submitted to the Bring New Orleans Back Commission extensive plans and drawings for a community center, including a museum reflecting the area's history and culture; a retirement home; pedestrian bridges spanning canals; an expansion of the community's famed Saturday-morning market that once offered some of the area's freshest and most-exotic produce; and a eye toward drawing tourists as an engine of economic development. The plans were showcased during the three-day Vietnamese New Year festivities in February, during which an estimated 20,000 people visited the neighborhood.
"We look at those plans as a way to not only celebrate our culture, but also to play a part in the larger, renewed culture of New Orleans -- New Orleans together as a city, a community, a culture," Father Nguyen says.
But the landfill threatens that vision. "Who invests themselves or their money in a place that's polluted?" the priest asks.
As she and her fiance file into Father Nguyen's office, Luu expresses similar concerns. "First Katrina, and now this?" she asks. "It's too much."
"It's not the act of God we're struggling with," Nguyen says. "It's the act of man."
THE CITY HAS MOVED TO CREATE A LANDfill at the Chef Menteur site twice before, in 1990 and 1997, but community opposition and court orders thwarted both attempts. In April, the city's newest landfill started operations at the site, which is in close proximity to the other two landfills in Orleans Parish -- one on Almonaster Boulevard and the other on Old Gentilly Road. All the sites are in eastern New Orleans.
This time around, the immediate need and massive volume involved in removing Katrina-related debris prompted the call for "C and D" landfills, which are classified to take construction- and demolition-related materials. Landfill opponents say the DEQ has waived regulations that normally prohibit certain toxic items such as motor oil, batteries, electronics and ink toner. Dumping large amounts of debris from gutted homes, opponents say, means such banned household items will almost certainly enter the landfill, which is scheduled to take in debris from 150,000 homes as it grows to 100 acres in size and 85 feet high.
"I don't know why the DEQ is doing this, why they are suspending all their own rules," says Paul Templet, former DEQ secretary under Gov. Buddy Roemer. Templet also is a Louisiana State University professor of environmental studies and one of the experts brought in by the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) to study the site. "It's a subterfuge of the law. This landfill will turn toxic. They're creating another Superfund site disaster like the Agriculture Street landfill after [Hurricane] Betsy."
Templet cites as the biggest infraction the fact that DEQ is allowing the dumping of household waste into a landfill not enclosed with a liner.
"In municipal solid waste landfills, there are two liners of synthetic, plastic material," Templet says. "Landfills leak, and the prudent thing to do is to install liners as well as a detector to check for leaks."
What liners prevent, Templet explains, is the oozing out of leachate, the fluid-like mix of water, earth and debris that is a byproduct of landfills.
DEQ officials, however, dispute the need for a lining at the Chef Menteur site.
"Lining is not required because it's a C and D landfill, so it's taking in only construction and demolition debris," says DEQ assistant secretary Chuck Carr Brown. "Those materials do not decompose, thus they do not produce leachate."
Brown admits that it's impossible to prevent certain household items from entering the site. "When you're disposing of somebody's entire house, you're going to have some co-mingling (with) a certain amount of other materials that you can not abate. But a threat from something like batteries, that's minimal at best."
Brown says precautions at the landfill "go far beyond" existing regulations, pointing out that DEQ regulations require the site to be only 50 feet removed from a residential area. Brown says the Chef Menteur landfill is 2 miles away from the Vietnamese community. (A check by Gambit Weekly revealed the site to be 1.6 miles from the intersection of Alcee Fortier and Chef Menteur Highway, with several apartment complexes closer than that.)
Faced with contentions over the need for a lining and the types of debris to be dumped at the site, landfill opponents sought independent testing. Perhaps predictably, the method of conducting the tests created its own controversy. Templet and his team of experts want to set the parameters and methods for the tests, while DEQ officials, citing safety concerns, required testers to remain in buses while monitoring the site. Templet and LEAN also want to check debris on incoming trucks they select at random. "We were forced to stay inside a bus," Templet says. "You can't perform an evaluation that way."
Joel Waltzer, an attorney hired by LEAN to represent Citizens for a Strong New Orleans East, summed up LEAN's frustrations in a letter to city Sanitation Department Director Veronica White: "We believe in order to test the waste in the landfill, you must test the waste in the landfill."
During the impasse, agencies and officials weighed in on the issue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a letter signed by Russell Watson, supervisor of the service's Louisiana field office, called for a liner to be installed or, barring that measure, tighter restrictions on debris that may enter the landfill.
City Councilmember Cynthia Willard-Lewis, lauded as a strong defender of the community's concerns by Father Nguyen and other activists, vowed to fight the landfill until it's closed.
"We're asking the city to help us remove the debris without threatening the safety of the neighborhood," Willard-Lewis says.
She recognizes the community's perception that city officials "treat New Orleans East like a stepchild."
"This is about what direction the city is going to take us in," Willard-Lewis says. "There is a concentration of landfills in New Orleans East, which impacts the community's ability to generate investments and economic development, not to mention the threats to individuals' health. Usually in American history, when there's a tragedy like Katrina, you reach out to those in greatest need and give them what they need to get things back to normal. It's regrettable, but that formula has been reversed in New Orleans today, as people who need help aren't getting assistance, but rather another obstacle."
At the state level, two legislative measures have been introduced to close the Chef Menteur landfill. One bill, introduced by Sen. Clo Fontenot (R-Livingston), would require the DEQ to explore other alternative methods of debris removal -- from incineration to placing debris on barges to be shipped elsewhere -- before opening a new landfill in Louisiana. A bill introduced by Sen. Joel Chaisson (D-Destrehan) stated that no landfill can open until existing sites are filled to capacity. Both bills died in a Senate committee. Another bill by Fontenot, Senate Bill 583, would require the DEQ to develop by July 1 a comprehensive debris management plan in the wake of natural disasters. The House and Senate passed different versions of that bill, and it was still in a conference committee at press time.
Both measures stem from a round-table meeting of city officials and landfill opponents organized by state Sen. Ann Duplessis (D-New Orleans), who represents eastern New Orleans in the Legislature. Templet, Father Nguyen and others contend there is plenty of existing landfill space in Orleans and Jefferson parishes to handle Katrina-related debris.
"We believe both bills provide more appropriate methods of dealing with Katrina debris," Duplessis says. "We can't allow a further concentration of landfills in New Orleans East. Nobody wants a landfill in his or her backyard, true. But when you're talking about equality and fairness, you have to give this area an ability to establish solid property values and attract investors. Landfills remove those abilities."
Barring legislative action, the standoff will continue without a compromise in view.
"There are solutions to this emergency without suspending all the rules," Templet says.
"The facility will continue to operate," Brown says. "Closing it would be a decision of the mayor's office."
THUY LUU PURCHASED THE LITTLE CAboose, a small cafeteria-style diner in the shadow of Touro Infirmary, three years ago. The restaurant was hit hard by Katrina, but Luu managed to reopen it in January.
The lunch-hour rush on this day is hectic, as usual. Customers coming in for such local staples as fried catfish plates are primarily health-care industry workers from the hospital and surrounding medical offices, and primarily African American. The restaurant staff is primarily Vietnamese. The two cultures blend in the cafeteria line, where "Sugar" or "Baby" is used for people the staff doesn't know by name, and where a "Mister" or "Miss" is used with the names they do know. The cultural mix reflects Father Nguyen's vision of the city's various cultures building on one another to create a new New Orleans.
After the lunch hour, Luu is finally able to take a break to chat with her fiance, who's preparing to board a flight to San Jose, Calif., where his company transferred him after Katrina. As Nguyen, a financial investments consultant, sketches out the business model developed by the Vietnamese-American-owned World Financial Group, it becomes obvious that the 40-year-old possesses sharp business skills -- and that he's enjoyed his months working in California.
"I'm happy there," says Nguyen, who before Katrina managed World Financial's New Orleans operations, including two offices and 40 employees. "People are more open-minded and business-minded in California."
Nguyen, a Loyola University graduate, estimates he travels three weeks each month these days, so he's grown accustomed to flying back and forth to work. While he says he's considering permanently relocating to Houston, where several of his siblings live, New Orleans is his home. Equally important, it's where his future wife lives and works. When asked about how the couple first met, the conversation takes a flirtatious tone.
"I met him when he was playing piano for a choir concert I was singing in," Luu says with a smile. "He was good on the piano -- and really cute, too."
That was 13 years ago. Today, the couple is doing what many New Orleanians are doing -- evaluating what the city's future has in store for them. They have concerns about housing, economics and the threat of a toxic landfill close to the neighborhood where they grew up.
Nguyen and Luu's wedding is scheduled for Nov. 18 at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, but for now Nguyen is headed for the airport and back to work.
"No matter what happens," Nguyen says, "this is still home."