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During Ike, Vietnamese Radio Run by a 'Small Village'

New America Media, News feature, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Sep 23, 2008

Editors Note: Its been more than a week since Hurricane Ike streamed across the Gulf of Mexico, causing catastrophic damage to coastal cities in Texas. During the darkest moments of the disaster, Radio Saigon Houston struggled to stay on the air to inform and comfort listeners. Some staff, listeners and their families even showed up to help, reports NAM editor Ngoc Nguyen.

Vu Thanh Thuy hunkered down and rode out the storm in a house next to her radio station, so she would be able to get to work on Saturday, Sept 13th, 2008, the morning after Hurricane Ike was expected make landfall in Galveston.

Although we were on top of the news, we felt lost and scared, said Vu, a journalist, radio host and CEO of Radio Saigon Houston (KREH 900 AM). I never thought we could be so lost, scared and confused, not knowing what to do. We decided we have to keep the radio on, even without electricity.

Vu and her husband, Duong Phuc, and about eight other staffers used a gas-powered generator meant for home use to power the station. They hoped to reach 160,000 Vietnamese Americans living in Houston and Galveston, through battery-powered radios.

At 8am its still dark and raining and storm wind is still blowing. We opened the phone lines, and everybody called in, all the lights were lit, she said. Our listeners told us they had been waiting by the radio. That was the sign of life. They didnt know what was going on.

When they ran out of gas, listeners brought in their own cans of gas or home-use generators to keep the broadcasts going. We never expected people would treat us like part of family. They sacrificed their own supplies one even got gas out of his car to bring to us, Vu said.

When the phone lines went down, staff and listeners offered up their cell phone numbers so listeners could continue to call in with questions.

Using a small television with a built-in antennae hooked up to the generator, the staff tuned into a local TV station (KHOU-11) to get information for their newscasts. After that went dead, Vu said, she telephoned colleagues in Dallas, California and North Carolina and asked them for the news, which she broadcasted using speaker phone.

But, listeners were tuning in for more than information; they yearned for the warmth of human voices, especially after nightfall when a curfew was enforced. People were warned not to use candles, which had caused several fires.

There were no lights, no batteries, people lived in the dark and were very scared, Vu said.

During these times, the intimacy of radio was a source of comfort.

We shared positive things [on-air] to keep peoples spirits up after the storm, shared the things we had gone through after war and exodus, Vu said. I told them Ike is not that bad compared to everything we have gone through. If we survived that, we can survive now. We shared stories and memories in the dark, she said.

Community members cans of gas, generators, cell phones, and volunteer efforts kept the radio on the air throughout the weekend. Listeners also became the eyes and ears of the station.

They became like our remote reporters. They reported everything they saw on the street and shared storm stories, Vu said. In one instance, a caller with asthma said she lacked power to operate her respiratory machine. Another listener came into the station to donate asthma medication. Another caller had severe allergies and needed Benadryl. Several donors delivered that medication to the station.

Its unbelievable. I cant believe a radio station can turn into something like that. It touched everybody. Thats how we survived in the first few days, Vu said.

After escaping Vietnam with her family as boat people, Vu entered the American media spotlight with her activism. After joining a refugee support group in San Diego, she and her husband - both journalists in Vietnam during the war - helped rescue thousands of boat people fleeing Vietnam. They signed a book and movie contract for their story and appeared on the television news program 20/20.
But her most important recognition came in 1987 when Vu was honored with the 21st Century Woman award from the National Organization for Women.

This is not the first time Radio Saigon Houston has found itself at the center of a storm. In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when hundreds of thousands of people fled to Texas, the station provided critical post-disaster information to the Vietnamese-American community. This time, Vu said, she feels a more personal connection to her audience.

During Katrina and Rita, we just connected people, we were a lost and found, she said. Other agencies used our airwaves to give people access to services. With Ike, we actually lived through it and went through every step of the storm with the people. The world became a small village where everyone cares about everyone else.

This weekend, Vu traveled to Galveston Bay to visit Vietnamese fishermen to see how they are recovering after the storm. Speaking to NAM by cell phone, she said the Vietnamese fishermen miraculously rode out the storm in a shipping channel. The safe harbor protected their boats.

The noise in the background, Vu said, was the roar of helicopters, still evacuating patients from the hospitals.

In the aftermath of Ike, one million evacuees are slowly returning, some home and some to shelters or government-funded hotels. As of Sunday, 875,000 people still lack electricity. Some 20,500 people are scattered in nearly 200 shelters throughout the state. Newspapers report that FEMA has a long-term housing crisis on its hands.

Vu said she believes there are about 3,000 Vietnamese-American evacuees still in Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin, who will be returning home gradually. For them, as for the wider community, the radio station will continue to be a lifeline.

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