Written by The Business Journal Staff
When the floodwaters rushed in last month in San Jose, a firefighter hauled Hien Nguyen to safety. She left behind the two-bedroom apartment she shared with a roommate for $1,000 a month, managing only to take her identification and her phone.
“Everything is destroyed,” the 70-year-old said, surveying her home last week, where she returned to clean and pick up clothing.
Now, Nguyen is living at a city shelter and like many others in San Jose’s Vietnamese community – the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam – she is trying to figure out how to rebuild and find a home in high-cost Silicon Valley.
City officials say about 80 percent of the 400 families who are still displaced are Vietnamese and have little more than the clothes on their backs. “They are working families,” said city councilman Tam Nguyen, who represents a district that is about a third Vietnamese.
The flooding also displaced low-income Latino families, said Councilman Sergio Jimenez, who is trying to help them find new homes and replace possessions.
The heavy rains from recent storms sent flood waters rushing through several of the city’s neighborhoods. Nguyen’s first-floor apartment sits along a crowded main street, not far from strip malls that sport signs in both Vietnamese and Spanish.
The area’s relatively low rents attract seniors, those with single incomes as well as families.
“I’m concerned about how we are going to get a place to live. I’m concerned about getting a really high rent,” said Van Fousek., who was living with her sister and paying just $400 a month for a rented room before the flood.
Fousek came to the U.S. in 1972 after she met and later married a U.S. Army soldier fighting in the Vietnam War. They brought with them three small children to California and began to build a life in the South Bay. They owned a home and raised their children.
But in 2014, financial and health problems forced them from the home and they separated. Fousek sold clothes at the local flea market to make ends meet. But her health worsened and she had to quit.
“I can’t do it anymore. I’m completely worn out. I have arthritis so bad and asthma and diabetes,” she said. Still, she said, “even in dark times, I try to see the silver lining in things and stay positive.”
San Jose saw another silver lining last week when a California billionaire donated $5 million for flood relief efforts. Kieu Hoang was a refugee from Vietnam himself who once went on to build a fortune in medical products. He presented a check to city officials for a relief fund operated by various charities.
“This is the time you need to pay back,” said the 70-year-old Hoang. “These (flooding victims) are the old, the sick, the disabled.”
At a news conference, residents clapped at the donation news and snapped selfies with the businessman.
City councilman Lan Diep also represents an area where many flood victims live. He said Vietnamese people are inherently self-reliant and often band together in crisis rather than waiting for the government to step in and assist.
Diep, 33, went to New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina flooding in 2005 and saw firsthand how the Vietnamese community there handled the crisis.
“The Vietnamese community didn’t wait for FEMA or state assistance,” Diep said. “They pooled their resources and all cleaned up one home and then they all moved along to fix up another.”