Nearly two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina devastated swathes of the U.S. Gulf Coast, including the vibrant city of New Orleans. Since then, some who fled the region have returned, while others have chosen to start anew elsewhere. Among those who elected not to go back is a tight-knit Vietnamese-American family that had been a fixture of the New Orleans restaurant scene. Malcolm Brown reports on the Cao family's attempts to rebuild a business, far from the city they know.
The Cao family is back in business, doing what it knows best -- turning out tasty Vietnamese food. It is something the Caos did for more than two decades in New Orleans, starting in 1981 when Anh-Thu Vu Cao started the first of what grew to be four restaurants. "New Orleans, I like as a city," she says. "First thing is the food; all good food over there and a lot of choice -- easy life."
That easy life came to an end when Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city and other Gulf Coast areas.
The Caos fled the advancing storm and ended up with relatives in the historic city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania -- almost 2,000 kilometers away.
The scenes, captured on a family video, when the Caos were allowed back into New Orleans in October 2005, dashed any hopes of a rapid recovery.
Vy Banh -- Vu Cao's daughter and company president -- says it left the family with a painful choice. "If we would have put all our money back into the city right away, who knows what would happen to us? We could have easily went under. So, it was just, as a family decision, safer to start over here in Lancaster."
Safer, yes, but not without considerable financial risk. Family members pooled their savings and bought a site, in a city they barely knew. With money tight, they did all the renovation work themselves.
Staff members who managed their own restaurants in New Orleans now wait tables, often working seven days a week. Banh says, "It's been pretty rough. I mean, just getting used to living differently from what we were accustomed to."
For the older generation this is the second time they have started from scratch. Anh-Thu Vu Cao and her husband Chau fled their native Vietnam in 1975, just before the fall of Saigon. The family left behind a chain of restaurants started by her father.
The lifetime of experience is paying off again in their new location.
Regular customer Dan Tran is of Vietnamese extraction himself and - coincidentally - was born in New Orleans. He sings the restaurant's praises. "We kind of knew who they were, what they had done in the New Orleans area and why they were here in the first place. So, I think for us that kind of helped us along to explore new places - a new restaurant with a new idea and got us in the door. Once we were in the door, we were pretty much hooked."
That verdict seems to be shared by the many repeat customers and obviously bodes well for the restaurant's future. There's even talk of a modest expansion. That said, they estimate that Katrina set their business back five years.