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  • I’ve met no shortage of resilient entrepreneurial people since moving back to New Orleans to work on hurricane recovery after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Few communities have been as resilient as the Vietnamese fishing community in Village de l’Est, an enclave in eastern New Orleans.

    The fishing communities of coastal Louisiana are hit disproportionately by hurricanes. In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, fishermen, dock owners, and other seafood businesses faced devastation. Boats flung far and wide were found sunk at the bottom of the Gulf and pinned to the top of trees. They worked tirelessly to recover and rebuild their fleets and got back on the water.

    Unfortunately, just as these communities were putting the past behind them, another set of twin storms – Gustav and Ike – ravaged the coastal communities in September 2008. The loss of property was still great, further compounded by volatile shrimp season that summer, but lessons had been learned and recovery moved a bit quicker.

    At least this was the case until April 20, 2010, when an explosion in the Gulf unleashed the greatest environmental disaster the country has experienced. Once again the fishing community was ground zero for disaster. Not only was the future of the fishing fleet in question, but fishermen who worked on oil rigs in the off-season to make ends meet saw that industry shut down with a moratorium on offshore drilling. The future was bleak.

    Since resilience is the name of the game in southeast Louisiana, this new disaster brought opportunity for creative solutions. In Village de l’Est, an industrious group of Vietnamese fishermen, are tapping into their cultural heritage roots as farmers and fishers to meet the needs of restauranteurs for locally-grown produce and supplement their incomes from an industry in flux. These farmers, with help from a group of entrepreneurial community developers at Mary Queen of Vietnam, the area’s prominent Catholic church, have set up an aquaponics farming system marries these primary skills. With a $4,000 investment in equipment and technical assistance, these fishermen are supplementing lost income by raising coi, a coveted ornamental fish, and meeting our restaurants’ demands for locally-grown produce.

    So far, the experiment is a success. Esteemed restaurant-owners, including John Besh and Emeril, are lined up to reap the rewards of this innovative solution. And since the demand for fresh, local products outstrip the supply, the opportunity for growth is great for these fisher-farmers raising pretty fish to grow basil to feed a population hungry for locally-grown food.

    As I sit here writing, a new storm – Isaac – is threatening to hit the Gulf Coast on the eve of the Katrina anniversary. Hopefully this storm system will pass by gently. No doubt, however, the same strength and creative powers this community and others along the Gulf Coast have shown over the past seven years will continue to create opportunities to blend our cultural assets with our future growth.
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