For some people, usually artists, a single name will do; Herschel, Adele, Prince, Cher and Ike are a few that come to mind. The single initial “W” served a former president well.
But there are unique names that will stay with us for a long time. Hugo, Matthew, Andrew, Irma and Camille, to name a few. All were hurricanes that ruined lives and turned dream homes into nightmarish rubble.
When I think of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in August 2005 and killed around 1,800 people, another name comes to mind: Kwanbunbumpen as in my near neighbors Vinai and Huong Kwanbunpumpen.
They and their six children escaped harm because they wisely fled in their Nissan pickup truck, first staying at a shelter in Baton Rouge before moving to another in Monroe. At both locations, they used their New Orleans skills to cook for the occupants of the shelter. They owned a bakery where they baked donuts and king patties for some of the best restaurants in the Big Easy.
“The one-hour drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge took eight hours,” he said.
When they found the Baton Rouge shelter running out of food, the Kwanbunbumpens appealed to the Vietnamese community for help and got all the food they needed. However, it wasn’t long before a truck from Sysco, the wholesale food distributor, arrived and they had everything they needed.
Eventually, they accepted a standing invitation from her sister and brother-in-law, John and Thao Gibson, to join them at St. Simons.
The elder Kwanbunbumpens has taken up permanent residence on St. Simons near the Gibsons with a spacious, peaceful yard with figs, Asian gourds, rosemary and other herbs. They came with two sons, Vincent and Vijai, and enrolled Vincent in school. Vincent’s love for school played into their decision to stay. The school played a role in their adult children’s decision to return to New Orleans where they work in professions such as pharmacist, human resources and medicine.
They said all their school friends were in New Orleans, so they came back and started over on their own.
They also have seven grandchildren now and everyone gathers in St. Simons around the July 4 holiday.
So how do they accommodate so many people.
“We are Asian,” they shrugged. “We sleep on the floor.
Upon arrival, they both went to work at what they knew was the bakery, but lost their jobs in 2009 when economic collapse hit the hospitality industry hard. He worked in food service at FLETC for a while, but is now a server, which he finds relaxing. He works when there’s an event and comes home and relaxes, something they couldn’t do when they still owned the bakery in New Orleans.
Their children were adamant on one point.
“They say mom and dad, you work so hard in the bakery, 12 and 15 hours a day, for us. That’s why we study so hard. Now we want to help you,” Vinai Kwanbunbumpen said. “J I said, ‘Okay.’
Huong Kwanbunbumpen is no longer able to work, but he provides as he has done for decades. Her friends, however, were not convinced that this Vietnamese woman would marry a Thai from Bangkok.
They met in Pensacola where he was in college. He was a Buddhist at the time but once went to church with a Catholic friend.
“I met the priest,” Kwanbunbumpen said. “He said, ‘Do you have a family?’ I said no.’ He said, ‘Do you want one?’ I said yes.’ He said, ‘Follow me.’
The priest introduced him to Huong, a former Buddhist herself who had converted to the Catholic faith from her American godparents. To marry her, he also had to convert.
His friends were wary of the game.
“I am a refugee,” she says. ” I have nothing. They say: ‘One day he fired you’.
He never came close. Katrina forced her out of their home, but the hurricane wasn’t her first storm, though she doesn’t remember the first. She grew up in Danang and was 12 in October 1971 when Typhoon Hester slammed into the coast, causing extensive damage, although the gusts were relatively mild at 85mph. A young US Army infantry sergeant, pictured at the top of this column, had arrived from the bush the day before the storm that blew up the flimsy barracks that housed Alpha Co. of 3/21 Infantry. It didn’t take much to destroy Vietnamese houses, some of which had walls made of waxed C-ration cans.
With our barracks flattened, we weathered the storm into a large metal fire station that belonged to contractor Philco Ford. The ground was flooded and the roof was peeling off when the winds died down. It wasn’t a great loss for those of us who usually slept on the floor.
Huong Kwanbunbumpen was young enough not to remember Hester, but she remembers fleeing the country a few years later when the communists flocked south and did more damage than the typhoon (Note: all refugees Vietnamese I’ve met call them Communists, not North Vietnamese.) Her brother and father served in the Republic of Vietnam Army and were killed in the war. As she and her mother ran for their lives with their family, they separated and she never saw or heard from her mother again.
She boarded a boat with her uncles and their families and they drifted at sea for days with little food. She remembers adults cutting a single lemon into tiny slices and passing them out.
She also remembers survivors dumping the dead and near-dead in the South China Sea. They were saved when a ship from the Seventh Fleet rescued them, and she eventually made it to America and lived a happy life.
I’m glad to be home, but some of the closest calls I’ve ever had were from my own stupid missteps. She endured far more than I and suffered far more for her freedom than most of us.
The old proverb that says, “It is an evil wind that blows no good,” means that there is good in most misfortunes. Bad winds from Karina gave St. Simons two good people.
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