We know from our post-Katrina research that while the Vietnamese community overall fared well, some sub-groups fared worse than others. Those whose cultural orientation remains essentially Vietnamese fared substantially worse than those who are able to function well in both Vietnamese and American societies.9 We also know that among the Vietnamese—as well as among more mainstream populations—the middle-aged fared worse than other age groups,10 presumably because of the family responsibilities that they shoulder alone. Finally, we know from our post-Katrina research focusing on the Vietnamese and other groups that those suffering substantial economic losses and those with the most prolonged post-war experience in transition camps fared the worst.11
These findings belie simplistic generalizations about the ubiquity of impacts and simplistic presumptions linking resilience to suffering. More important, these findings can help us to anticipate the impacts of the BP oil disaster on the Vietnamese population and what one might do to mitigate them. First, we should not expect the rapid rebound of the Vietnamese fishermen affected by the BP catastrophe that we witnessed among the urban Vietnamese community post-Katrina. This is because the fishermen are among the most linguistically and culturally isolated Vietnamese in America, and we know that individuals with these characteristics are much more vulnerable to negative mental health impacts than are those who are better grounded and more functional in both American and Vietnamese cultures. Second, the concentration of affected boat owners in the vulnerable middle-aged group is worrisome. Intuitively, we might expect this age group to have the most to worry about, and our empirical evidence from Katrina suggests that this is indeed the case. A third principal reason for increased concern is the large and lasting impacts upon mental health that resulted from large economic losses from the Katrina disaster.
The loss of livelihood within this population resulting from the BP disaster will be very large, and prospects for viable long-term alternatives are grim, especially given the relative lack of alternative job skills and English language ability among many of those affected, relative to the Vietnamese community at large. One benefit that Vietnamese Americans working outside the fishing industry enjoyed post-Katrina was the plethora of economic opportunities that were available for those with sufficient entrepreneurial skills, fortitude, and capital to exploit them during the immediate post-Katrina period. There will be no comparable post-disaster boom for the fishermen to participate in. The petrochemical industry—especially offshore work—was perhaps once a viable alternative for employment for this sub-population, but this industry has also been crippled by the oil disaster, an injury exacerbated by the suspension of deep-water drilling implemented by President Obama in late May. Recruitment of Vietnamese and other fishermen into the cleanup effort—however well-intended—may turn out to be a cruel and ironic fate since it involves the mitigation of a catastrophe that destroyed their livelihoods, since there is an utter lack of alternatives, and since these Vietnamese with the least understanding of English and of American society may be the most vulnerable to an underestimation of health and other risks that the cleanup work entails.
There are several practical implications of the research summarized above. First, a watchful eye needs to be kept on the physical and mental health challenges to the middle-aged, a sub-population often overlooked by practitioners who may be more focused on groups that are conventionally perceived to be more vulnerable. Second, special efforts at screening should be directed at those with limited English ability and limited contacts with non-Vietnamese social networks and institutions. Third, a wide array of special services need to be developed and put into place right away, including culturally relevant mental health screening; financial support to mitigate short-term economic losses; assistance with re-location for those wishing to move; and English and job training to help mitigate long-term economic consequences.
- 9. Norris, VanLandingham, and Vu, “PTSD in Vietnamese Americans”; and Mark VanLandingham, Lung Vu, Hongyun Fu, Fran Norris, and Janet Rice, “Katrina-related Health Impacts on Vietnamese New Orleanians: A Longitudinal Analysis,” International Health and Development Working Paper No. 2009-03 (New Orleans: Tulane University, 2009). [↩]
- 10. Norris, VanLandingham, and Vu, “PTSD in Vietnamese Americans”; and Narayan Sastry and Mark VanLandingham, “One Year Later: Mental Illness Prevalence and Disparities Among New Orleans Residents Displaced by Hurricane Katrina,” American Journal of Public Health 99, no. S3 (2009): 725–31. [↩]
- 11. Vu et al., “Evacuation and Return”; and Sastry and VanLandingham,“One Year Later.” [↩]