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After Katrina, O.C. Has the Perfect Climate

Friends, family, jobs and dry weather made the county attractive to hundreds of evacuees, especially the Vietnamese. Many say they'll stay.

October 09, 2005|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The trek west from New Orleans takes about 35 hours by car. And Jenny Tran has made the trip to Orange County and back many times.

But somewhere between Hurricane Katrina and refuge in Southern California last month, it became apparent: This would be a one-way trip.

"Many people left thinking they would return in a month," said Tran, who left Aug. 28, a day before the hurricane hit New Orleans, her hometown. But for her and her teenage son, Kenny Dang, there's no going back, at least for now.

They are among an estimated 9,000 hurricane victims who have made their way to Southern California on their own, lured not by a government program but by family; friends; a warm, dry climate; jobs; and, yes, even Disneyland. Many are enrolling their youngsters in public schools and plan to stay awhile.

Tran, 48, has no home left in New Orleans, her at-home sewing business is a shambles and she knows many of the almost 1,000 newcomers around her in Orange County are in the same shape. "Like me and my son, they can't come back. I feel so bad, so sad."

And like Tran, most of the new arrivals are Vietnamese, many returning to friends and families in a place that was a major portal to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Even though Tran has been here before, she and other new arrivals say they often find Southern California's freeways bewildering, its shopping malls gigantic and rents sky high.

But they say they like the familiarity of dozens of Vietnamese restaurants and shops in Little Saigon, home to the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam.

For Phillip Dominick, 60, who drove from New Orleans with his wife and son, it wasn't hard getting used to packed malls and more people here.

"It's not too many people, it's too many freeways," Dominick said.

"In Louisiana, I could daydream and still find my exit. Here, you get off at the wrong exit, make a wrong turn and you find you don't have one interstate, but you got 15 more."

Dominick left New Orleans with his wife, Marva, their son, Phillip Dominick Jr., 22, and Sasha, their 85-pound Rottweiler.

They initially thought they would be away from home two days. But when a nearby levee broke, their home flooded and he decided to head west "as far as I could go."

Dominick praised the Red Cross, which gave the family aid, found them a hotel that accepts dogs and helped his son, a senior at the University of New Orleans, send transcripts to California schools.

Although the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the official pipeline for evacuees, the beleaguered relief agency has not helped transport any to Southern California.

According to the Red Cross, most evacuees in Los Angeles County have been African Americans while in Orange County, most are Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans. Like Tran and Dominick, they arrived in their own cars.

"Even non-Vietnamese evacuees have come here because they have lived here at one time, went to school here or have family here," said Jim Palmer, co-chairman of OperationOC, an umbrella group made up of private social service agencies, including the Red Cross.

OperationOC has a campaign to raise $2.6 million for the new arrivals. So far, the Red Cross has provided nearly $81,500 in financial assistance, and private fundraisers in Orange County, including Little Saigon, have boosted the total.

A benefit at Asian Garden Mall in Westminster featuring Vietnamese and other artists raised $14,500.

According to OperationOC, 435 families are receiving temporary housing, food and clothing, medical aid and help finding jobs.

"Overall, 85% of the families we've seen want to stay in Orange County and only 15% want to return or stay in a different state," Palmer said.

FEMA refers to them as those "who evacuated by self-deployment," said Kevin Clark, FEMA spokesman in Oakland. "These self-deployed people came to California because they had a connection, a mechanism for arrival and help like members of their families, friends and church connections," Clark said.

Most Gulf Coast victims, he explained, were not interested in leaving their homes, jobs and families, and traveling far away, even temporarily.

About 15,000 evacuees have arrived in California, said a spokesman from the Governor's Office of Emergency Services. For Tran, the trek to Orange County is a familiar one. Her parents live in Garden Grove.

"I know the drive almost by heart," she said. "It takes 35 hours only stopping for gas."

Wed at 17 in Vietnam, she was married for 15 years and has six children. Three live in Irvine, two in San Francisco and Kenny, the teen, lives with her. She has lived in Kalamazoo, Mich., Houston, Long Beach, Garden Grove and New Orleans.

Left with little in New Orleans, she thought twice about Orange County's high cost of living. But she had relatives here, and her son wanted to live in California.

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