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Village de L’Est–New Orleans East: A Study in Community Resilience

Image of Monica Schoch-Spana, PhD
Monica Schoch-Spana
Date posted:
September 14, 2012
Publication type:
Prepared remarks

Remarks delivered by Monica Schoch-Spana at the "White House Champions of Change: American Red Cross Day," September 14, 2012, as part of the panel, “Building Resilient Communities by Creating Community Networks.”


As Richard Reed mentioned, I belong to the National Academy of Sciences’ committee that just released the report, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative.1 Instead of throwing the 200-page report at you (literally and figuratively), I’d like to share what we found about community resilience during one of our local fact-finding missions.

Our field visit to New Orleans East – which was flooded by Katrina – included a trip to Village de L’Est, home to a predominantly Catholic Vietnamese-American community.2 At the end of the Vietnam War, many South Vietnamese fled the incoming regime and came to the US, some settling in New Orleans and the Gulf.

The Village de L’Est community had distinguished itself by a high rate of return post-Katrina and rapid rebuilding (with little government assistance) and by its positive influence on the city’s rebuilding efforts.2-3

Three issues significant to community resilience research emerged during our visit: Social Identity and Memory, Social Capital, and Community Competence.

Social Identity and Memory

Scholarship on disasters and trauma shows that hopefulness, a positive communal identity, and collective narratives that give tragedy meaning and purpose are important ingredients for community resilience.1,4 The extent to which communities frame themselves as capable, adaptable, and self-sufficient – rather than victimized or helpless – will affect their decision-making, actions, and ability to cope in the face of adversity.1 Bearing a collective “survivor” identity, residents of Village de L’Est said that they viewed Katrina’s destruction as an opportunity to rebuild the community even stronger.

The collective memory of the New Orleans East Vietnamese positively shaped this community’s experience with Katrina.2-3 Their experiences as war refugees and recent immigrants – and the hardship and rewards of relocation – helped frame the hurricane and flooding as adversities that they could tackle together. Having built new lives after fleeing Vietnam was “proof” that recovery was within their reach.

Social Capital

The community had also forged a practical history of working together with limited means to make a new life possible after leaving Vietnam. Like during immigration, robust social networks and the moral and material resources exchanged across these networks were key factors to surviving Katrina and to rebuilding, as was the leadership displayed by the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church.2-3

Researchers identify social linkages and a sense of community – characterized by high concern for community issues, respect for and service to others, and a sense of connection – as resources that foster resilience.4 People’s engagement, too, in community settings like resident associations and religious congregations – which call for leadership, teamwork, and common purpose – is also an important resilience element.4

Evacuation planning for the Village De L’Est community was conducted by the church with the local radio station. People relied on their social networks to evacuate with family and friends and to locate temporary housing in shelters or US Vietnamese communities elsewhere. Immediately after the hurricane, the pastor traveled by boat to check on people.

The church and faith community, too, served as a principal motivator for people to return. The first mass was held in October 2005 with just 20 or so families, but news that the church was open and operating spread quickly. So by December, more than 2,000 people were attending.

With government aid slow to come, people got a head start on home and boat repairs by sharing the building skills learned back home, and by lending each other money. Of the experience, one community member said, “We are all carpenters now.” A boat captain explained that the fishermen needed to get back to work sooner, so they tended to borrow money from friends for repairs, and then lend out money when they were back in business.

Community Competence

The Vietnamese of New Orleans East stressed their ability to plan as a community, to carry out their plans when disaster struck, and to work together to seek improvements following disaster – exhibiting what researchers call “community competence”: the ability to act as a collective and cohesive unit that can define, address, and solve problems for the betterment of the community.1,4,5

A concrete example is the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation – a community-led, post-Katrina rebuilding initiative whose mission is to preserve and promote the community’s unique diversity and to improve quality of life for the neighborhood and the city.6 Accomplishments include:

  • Collaborating with local hospitals to start 2 health clinics in this medically underserved area; and

  • Assisting Village de L’Est business owners to secure over $2M in capital to rebuild or expand their businesses.

In conclusion, I would like to underscore that the Village De L’Est community fulfills the most robust definition of resilience to disasters, which is the capacity not just to bounce back, but actively to transform the larger physical and social environment to mitigate against future incidents and to achieve a higher quality of life.


  1. Committee on Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters. Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2012.

  2. Olson S. Increasing National Resilience to Hazards and Disasters: The Perspective from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2011.

  3. Leong KJ, Airriess CA, Li W, et al. Resilient History and the Rebuilding of a Community: The Vietnamese American Community in New Orleans East. Journal of American History, December 2007 (94): 693–876.

  4. Norris FH, Stevens SP, Pfefferbaum B et al. Community Resilience as a Metaphor, Theory, Set of Capacities, and Strategy for Disaster Readiness. American Journal of Community Psychology 2008; 41(1-2): 127-150.

  5. Pfefferbaum, R, Reissman DB, Pfefferbaum B, et al. Factors in the Development of Community Resilience to Disasters. In, Intervention and Resilience after Mass Trauma. M. Blumenfield and R.J. Ursano, eds. Cambridge University Press; 2008, pp. 49-68.

  6. Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation. Available at Accessed September 12, 2012.



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