Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98% of its land and most of its population to rising sea levels – but as remaining residents consider relocation, what happens next is a test case to address resettlement needs
March 15, 2016 — Wenceslaus Billiot, an 88-year-old native of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, remembers growing up on a much different island than the two-mile sliver of his ancestral home that remains today.
“When I was a kid I used to do trapping in the back,” he said, gesturing towards the back of the small, one-story house that stands elevated on stilts to escape the floods that roll in from the bayou after nearly every storm. “You could walk for a long time. Now, nothing but water.”
The back balcony overlooks a vast expanse of water leading to Terrebonne Bay and, further, the Gulf of Mexico – that now lies in his backyard.
Billiot and his equally sprightly 91-year-old wife, Denecia Naquin, are among the last remaining residents of this island, which has lost 98% of its land and most of its population to coastal erosion and rising sea levels since 1955. The population, which peaked at around 400, is now down to around 85.
As in other areas of southern Louisiana, the loss of once-vast tracts of marshland and trees has left the island exposed to hurricanes and frequent flooding has stripped the land, made farming impossible and forced residents into an annual ritual of rebuilding.
The couple, like nearly everyone on the island, belong to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, and can trace their roots to the early 1800s when Native Americans fleeing forced relocation under the Indian Removal Act first settled the island. The tribe was quickly intertwined with the local French Cajun influence, which can still be heard in the lilting accent of Billiot and Naquin’s generation.
Billiot recalls going to school in a pirogue, a traditional Cajun boat. His wife once grew vegetables and kept chickens in the backyard. Today, it’s hard to imagine cattle roaming this scraggly, narrow patch of land, as they once did when the island was much larger.
“If my grandparents would have been here now, they would say ‘Oh, lord’,” imagined Billiot, shaking his head.
Now, with new federal funding, the Isle de Jean Charles tribe will be part of the first program in the lower 48 states to address an entire community’s resettlement needs due to climate change and increased natural disasters.
“If it passes a hurricane, it’s gonna wash everything away,” said Billiot. “That’s why they want us to move.” His skin is weathered from a life spent on the water, first as an oyster fishermen then as a tugboat captain. The couple is clearly reticent to leave. “We’ll stay here as long as we can,” added Denicia with a polite smile.
In January the tribe was awarded $52m for resettlement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as part of its $1bn Natural Disaster Resiliency Competition. The money will fund a new sustainably designed development to provide housing to up to 400 tribe members on a new plot inland. Planning is in the early stages, but officials hope to choose a site likely somewhere north of Houma, the closest city, later this year.
The project will be watched closely as a testing ground for the resettlement of whole communities – culturally sensitive ones, in particular – as the effects of climate change begin to be felt more acutely along the coasts of North America and indigenous communities in Alaska face similar prospects of disappearing land.
On Isle de Jean Charles, the new funding is being met with a mix of appreciation and apprehension. The tribe has twice before voted against relocation – once in 2002 and again in 2009 – and it is still unclear how many residents will ultimately choose to move (they are not required to leave). But many here have finally become resigned to the fact that in a state pursuing a $50bn Coastal Master Plan to shore up the disappearing coast, their island could be gone within 50 years.
The project has sparked some to place Isle de Jean Charles tribe the among the country’s first “climate refugees”, a term Chief Albert Paul Naquin, the tribe’s official leader, rejects. “We consider ourselves lucky because we want to put our community together again,” said Naquin, who has been seeking resettlement funding for more than 15 years. “We know that nobody wants to leave, but it’s about staying together.”
‘The next barrier reef’
Louisiana has one of the fastest rates of land loss in the country, due to the twin problems of land loss and sea level rise. Since the 1930s, the state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land, equivalent to roughly one football field every 45 minutes.
“The land is sinking for a variety of reasons,” said Alex Kolker, a professor of earth sciences at Tulane University. Natural land loss has been compounded by the thousands of canals dredged by oil and gas companies drilling in the area and levees built along the Mississippi River have stopped the natural process of sediment that would otherwise replenish coastal land. “Climate change is becoming a big issue,” he said, and the increasing rate of sea level rise could soon overtake the rate of land loss, which has historically been greater.
In the future, a lot of the rest of the world could look like what Louisiana looks like now, Kolker added.
On Isle de Jean Charles, the storms have made life difficult, if not untenable. Chris Brunet, who lives on the island with his two young children, says he “can’t even count” the number of times he has had to clean layers of mud out of his house following a storm. Long-term mold and mildew problems can persist and Chief Naquin reports that many on the island have health problems as a result.
“Boyo” Naquin, the son of Denecia and Billiot, reluctantly moved to Houma, about 25 miles north, in 1985 after his house flooded twice in one year. “I didn’t want to go but every time a hurricane would pass through you lose everything you have,” he said.
Since 1998, Terrebonne Parish has been hit by a presidentially declared disaster every two to three years. This has led to major population shifts within the parish, and some bayou communities have lost 20% or more of their population to towns north of Houma since 2010.
While the state attempts to move forward with its $50bn master plan, there are complicated decisions to be made over where to focus adaptation and restoration efforts, and some communities will inevitably be left out.
“We are going to be able to save some large areas,” said Kolker, who is on the framework development team for the coastal master plan update, due to come out next year. “One of the tricky questions is deciding which areas to change.” He points to a complicated cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the ecological value of the land and the feasibility of adaptive measures like rebuilding the land.
Isle de Jean Charles, he says, lies in a particularly difficult area because it is so far from sediment sources in the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya basin that could be brought in to rebuild the land.
In 2002, the Army Corps of Engineers made changes to the original planned route of the 72-mile Morganza to Gulf Hurricane Protection System due to cost constraints, causing Isle de Jean Charles to become excluded from the protected zone. At the time, the ACE offered resettlement assistance to those on the island, but without unanimous agreement from residents, the offer was ultimately dropped.
“When your state and your government excludes you from the master plan, you can pretty much say, OK we are going to be the next barrier reef,” said Chantel Comardelle, Tribal Executive Secretary and the granddaughter of Billiot and Denecia Naquin. “At some point you just become a number.”
Some here look to the oil companies for blame, but Isle de Jean Charles residents, like many in coastal Louisiana, also have a fraught relationship with the industry. It is essentially the sole provider of employment to locals – either directly or indirectly through shipbuilding and service industries – but has also greatly exacerbated land erosion by dredging (and often failing to fill in) innumerable canals in the area.
“You can blame them, but not in total because we do depend on them. We are oil and gas,” said Brunet.
“I guess its kind of a shame on us that we didn’t think through all the ramifications,” of drilling, reflected Comardelle. “But at that time nobody could have known really known what would happen or that we would be sitting here today having these conversations.”
A web of life
Comardelle, 34, has scant memories of growing up on the island. She left as a small child to Houma, where she still lives today with her husband and three children, but still visits the island regularly.
She says that while she is only a short drive from the island, she and many of her generation still missed out on the tight-knit community life described by her father and grandparents.
“You could walk from one end of the island to the other and stop and people’s houses to get food and water,” her dad recalled. Others describe the self-sufficiency of previous generations that lived mostly off the land. Today, most of the tribe’s 600 members are scattered around southern Louisiana.
Reversing the mini diaspora of tribe members in southern Louisiana is one of the primary goals of the resettlement project.
“We’re getting more and more people that want to move back because those that left, when they were living back here there had no rent, no mortgage. And now, they are living poor and have to have two families living together to make ends meet,” he said. “This is going to put them in a good position to get back on their feet.”
This was echoed by Katrina Peterson of the Lowlander Center, a non-profit working closely with the tribe on resettlement: “This community not only signed up to be the guinea pig, they also signed up to be the teachers”, she said.
According to Peterson, project planners will emphasize long-term environmental sustainability, from housing design to land use practices. Even with plans to settle 30 miles inland from where the water stands today, there is recognition that the coastline is a moving target. She says native plants transferred from the island will act as a bulwark against future land erosion and also provide a habitat for the migratory birds and other animals they expect to move northward with the shifting coastline.
“Its not going to be just a subdivision, it’s going to be a web of life,” she said, that will echo Native American beliefs of interconnectivity with nature.
While the project plans are ambitious, mistrust of official intervention still lingers on the island. “I think that might be some of the issue of people being standoffish, like, ‘Well, we’ve heard this before,’” says Comardelle. “Even in the back of my mind, I’m waiting to see the check.”
For now, tribal leaders are making plans to bring as much of the island with them as possible. They have begun to collect seeds and plant cuttings, and are interviewing older community members about what life was like when the island was fully populated. There are even plans to recreate the façade of a long-shuttered general store that was once on the island.
“If you ask us, it’s worth saving. But is it possible at this point? I think it is just beyond,” Comardelle said. “We’re trying to replace what has been lost. And we’re trying to pave the way so other communities can have a smoother ride.”