HOUSTON >> As Harvey’s floodwater rose quickly above cabinets, counters and toward the ceiling, Viet Dao scrambled to figure out how he would save his young children, wife and in-laws if the water wouldn’t stop. What if he couldn’t rescue them all?
“It hits you right there: We have nowhere to escape,” Dao, 48, said by phone Wednesday. “If it was just me, it’s OK, I can survive. But I just don’t know how can I help my children and family get out. It’s really frustrating.”
Decades ago, it was Dao’s parents who were trying to get him out of harm’s way by sending him away from Vietnam on a crowded fishing boat when he was 18 so that he could make a better life for himself in America. The two situations are incomparable, but Dao says he now better understands the desperation of wanting to protect family.
Some of the more than 110,000 Vietnamese in the Houston area are among the tens of thousands of people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by Harvey. They share a common heritage in the United States that stems from leaving a homeland and starting anew.
Houston, an official resettlement site for refugees after the Vietnam War, is home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans outside of California. The population includes recent newcomers whose limited English is dotted with “ma’am,” and those who came decades ago after a city then called Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975.
Like the rest of the region, they have been shoveling debris from ruined homes, mopping up wet floors and pitching in however they can to help with recovery efforts from the devastating storm that killed more than 70 after landing on the Gulf Coast of Texas on Aug. 25 as a Category 4 hurricane.
The Lien Hoa Buddhist temple in Houston earlier this week bustled with dozens of upbeat adults and teenagers who unloaded crates of bottled water and filled a table with plastic supply bags to send to needy families. The teens cracked jokes. The elders finished lunch. Everyone worked.
People came by to pick up donated cleaning supplies and to seek help from English-speaking volunteers, said manager Lang Bui. Chau Ho, for example, was helping 48-year-old Lisa Nguyen file for unemployment after her nail shop in the town of Refugio flooded and lost electricity.
“She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what she’ll do,” said Ho, 35, of Houston.
A popular local chain of restaurants, Kim Son, reopened its downtown location last week after minor damage, offering free buffet meals to first responders. It delivered egg rolls, crab puffs and broccoli chicken to hundreds of evacuees and police off-site.
The restaurant, which serves Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, was founded by a couple who landed in Houston with seven children in 1980. Among them was Tina La, now 43, who says she is proud to give back to the city that took in her family.
“I’ve been here all my life and if it weren’t for any of these people we wouldn’t be where we are,” she said.
Experts say the numbers of Vietnamese ramped up in the Houston area after early refugees gained U.S. citizenship and sponsored family members to live in America. They opened restaurants and other businesses catering to the community. By 2000, they numbered about 60,000 in the area.
Today, growing numbers of South Asians and Chinese are moving to Houston for jobs in mathematics and science, but Vietnamese remains the third most spoken language in Texas, said state demographer Lloyd Potter. It is a far distant third after English and Spanish.
Jannette Diep is executive director of Houston’s chapter of Boat People SOS, an organization founded in the 1980s to rescue refugees escaping Vietnam. A refugee herself, she fled the country by boat when she was 6, with her parents and two baby brothers.
Diep has been keeping track of Vietnamese American fishermen outside Houston and helping elderly and non-English speaking victims fill out forms for aid in the aftermath of Harvey. She says it took years for families along the coast to rebuild after 2008’s Hurricane Ike wiped out shrimping and fishing boats along the Gulf Coast.
“There is this history of having to leave your home from disaster, from place to place,” she said.
On Wednesday, she was still in spotty communication with about 200 Vietnamese American families in nearby Port Arthur, an area 90 miles east (124 kilometers) of Houston hit hard by flash floods. She said families in nearby Anahuac did not sustain much damage to homes, but lost netting and fishing traps to water.
Dao, the homeowner in the Houston suburb of Spring, said his family owned a jewelry store in Saigon before 1975. He fled his country in a fishing boat with more than a dozen others, ending up in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he stayed for nearly a year. From there, he eventually moved to Wisconsin, then San Diego before settling in Houston.
He married his childhood friend’s sister, Christine Truong, with whom he has two children, a 6-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. He opened a deli and they bought their dream home.
The family survived Harvey, camping out upstairs with a mini refrigerator for several nights. But the house that Truong calls the best she’s ever lived in is soggy and soiled. Like many people, they do not have flood insurance.
Dao dreads bringing the children home but says they have no choice.
“We break down from time to time, of course, but we try not to let them see it,” he said, “because if we give up, how are we going to rebuild what we have?”