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The Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill on AAPI Communities

Chen and Buehring meet with members of the AAPI communities who live and work in the areas affected by the oil spill in the Gulf Coast.

In the last month, we were deployed by the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to join the Unified Area Command in the Gulf Coast and assess the immediate needs of the Southeast Asian American community, who make up one-third of the seafood industry workforce in the region.

We visited community centers, churches and temples in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.  We met with seafood processors, fishers, crabbers, shrimpers, oysterfolk and boat welders, many who have been working in these specialized trades for generations.  Over meals, roundtable discussions and town hall meetings, we listened to people talk about their livelihoods, their deep connection to the sea, and the challenges they face as a result of the devastating oil spill.

In Irvington, Alabama, we spoke to a Thai American crabber who owns two boats and has lived in the United States for over 40 years.  She and her workers set traps and catch crabs during the day, then make deliveries to restaurants and seafood processing plants in the evenings.  She had invested in $17,000 worth of new traps in anticipation of the coming crab season.  All of this has been lost since the oil spill began over seven weeks ago, and she's been unable to provide for her workers, nor for herself.  During a town hall meeting with Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai and Cambodian Americans, she kindly smiled and said, "Just please put us to work.  We are a proud people.  We don't want to beg.  We want to work."

In Biloxi, Mississippi, we heard from the daughter of a Vietnamese American fisherman, who, along with many of her peers, have galvanized a coalition of community groups in the area to organize bilingual community forums for Vietnamese American fishers.  She told us, “Our families are falling apart.  Our lives as we know it are gone.  We will no longer get to eat the seafood our father and brother catch.  We won’t have the opportunity to come help with unloading the shrimp when their boats come in after two weeks out at sea.  We won’t have financial support from them because they can’t do the work they have done for the past 20-30 years – catching shrimp, fish, crab, oysters.  It is very sad to see our family members’ careers as fishermen ending because of this BP oil spill disaster.”

Many Southeast Asian Americans in the Gulf Coast region remain linguistically isolated and unaware of the available disaster recovery resources.  The lack of information is compounded by the loss of income and livelihoods, resulting in increased hardship and confusion.

The same challenges are faced by the broader community.  In Dulac, Louisiana we spoke with a Native American, French-speaking shrimper who left school after the fifth grade to start shrimping with his father.  Now he waits each day for news of the waterways opening so that he can go out and practice his trade, which he describes as being in his blood.  "It's frustrating, I just want to work."

In an effort to address the community needs, we visited government service providers offering individuals assistance with disaster relief loans, employment preparation and training, and food assistance throughout the three states.   We found that Federal agencies wanted to be responsive to all affected communities in the Gulf Coast region but were unclear of the extent of the community needs, and required additional support to get information to limited English speaking communities.

The Administration has taken important steps to providing this support to get information out to these vulnerable communities.  The Deepwater Integrated Services Team and the National Incident Command deployed Community Relations Outreach Teams along the Gulf Coast, with a team specifically focused on addressing language needs and low literacy levels.  We conducted trainings for these highly qualified teams on the importance of outreach, translation, cultural competence and trust when working with Limited English Proficient communities affected by the oil spill.

While we were deployed, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, who has made it a priority for oil spill clean-up training materials to be in multiple languages, convened a series of roundtable discussions, including one focused on Vietnamese American workers and community leaders from in Louisiana and Mississippi, to ensure that their health and safety are protected in the clean-up activities.

We know the people are struggling and dealing with serious challenges, and we will continue to reach out to the impacted communities and work hand in hand with the Federal agencies to ensure that the needs are met.   Please find the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders at to get updates and learn about ways to get involved.

Miya Saika Chen is the Advisor on Community Engagement and Audrey Buehring is the Advisor on Intergovernmental Affairs in the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.