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'No one had been helping'

When Lee told his family goodbye on Aug. 28, he knew he would die the next day.

BY HEATHER MOYER | BILOXI, Miss. | September 28, 2005

"We got food to them early last week and they said it was the first food they'd had since the storm."

—Sherry Buresh

When Lee told his family goodbye on Aug. 28, he knew he would die the next day.

Lee, the master of the Chua Van Doc Buddhist Temple in Biloxi, knew Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the coast and saw 40 elderly members of the temple before him that Sunday night.

They took shelter in the temple, which sits only a few blocks from the ocean, after being turned away from a shelter at the last minute. "Many of them were sick and very elderly," said Lee of the members with whom he stayed. He added that many of them were also from temples across the country and had come to town for a celebration of the temple's fourth year of existence.

"We had to stay," he said. "And I had to stay with my people. I told my family that I couldn't go to Houston with them because the temple needs me, my people need me."

Lee said he knew they were all going to die together, and as the storm surge's water rose into the temple, the group escaped to the attic. In the attic, the water rose as high as their shoulders before it dropped again hours later.

After the water receded enough, Lee went downstairs and out into the street. That's when he saw the National Guard trucks moving through the flooded streets. "They said, 'You're alive!' and I said, 'Yes!' They could not believe I was alive."

He helped shuttle his members to the trucks and then onward to the public shelters.

Now, some four weeks later, Lee is standing in front of his temple on a sunny afternoon. The neighborhood is a scene of destruction. Houses sit teetering off their foundations. Businesses are shattered and boarded up. Trees are snapped in half.

On the temple grounds, however, volunteers are rushing about moving boxes of donations. The temple is now receiving help from all over the country. The volunteers are an international team themselves. For Richard - who declined to give his last name - traveling to the temple from his home in northern California was the right thing to do.

"I wanted to help," he said, pausing in the shade of an ice truck. "There's so much work to do."

One organization that is assisting the temple and its predominantly Vietnamese membership is the Christian Appalachian Project (CAP). Sherry Buresh, CAP's assistant director for human services, said she stumbled upon the community when she was touring the neighborhood two weeks ago. CAP volunteer teams are staffing a shelter at the Christus Victor Lutheran Church in nearby Ocean Springs. Each day volunteers travel into the nearby communities with supplies to see who is still in need.

For CAP's first disaster response outside of the Appalachian region, said Buresh, helping the temple is exactly what they should be doing.

"We got food to them early last week and they said it was the first food they'd had since the storm," she explained. "No one had been helping them yet."

Now that the word is out about their community, the assistance is pouring in. Buresh said helping a non-Christian group makes no difference to her - CAP will help anyone in need. She added that the food she's delivered to the temple has gone through even more of an interfaith path. "The food was donated by a synagogue, stored at a Lutheran church, and delivered to a Buddhist temple by an interdenominational Christian organization," said Buresh.

The Catholic Church of the Vietnamese Martyr, located next to the temple, is receiving similar help. Sitting inside the church's foyer that same Tuesday, Jackie Trieu and several other church members were waiting for a shipment of rice to distribute to the community. Buresh and some volunteers from CAP delivered fresh fruit to them in the meantime.

As the women sat chatting amongst themselves in the open foyer, church member Jackie Trieu pointed to the water line 10 feet high on the walls of the church. She was thrilled to see how her church had faired in the storm, having been one of few structures not knocked off its foundation. Yet how the rest of the neighborhood looked was a shock to her.

"The first day I saw the community I cried," said Trieu. "Everything was gone. Everybody lost their homes."

Trieu herself rode out the storm with her family on a boat in the bay. She said her family was lucky to have saved their boats. Most in the Vietnamese community lost their boats - which were crucial to their survival as many were shrimpers.

But there is hope. Buresh said CAP will continue to help however it can, an important note in a community where many cannot afford to move and are instead living in their severely damaged housing.

Lee sees the hope too. He has several families living in the temple for the time being. Tuesday afternoon, many are sitting on the porch, laughing and talking. Lee is smiling, too, as tonight he will see his family for the first time since that fateful Sunday.

"I am very lucky," he says.

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