Spring arrived early this year for Isle de Jean Charles. The southern gulf breeze is refreshing after an atypical freeze here deep in the Louisiana marsh. It’s late February and the thick vegetation is already sprouting a bright, luxuriant green. The birdsong threatens to drown out conversation. In a matter of weeks, shrimp, speckled trout, and redfish will be running. For members of this tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, this is nothing short of paradise.
So why is everyone moving away?
Of the 35 residential structures left on the island, many stand empty, slowly rotting back into the landscape. Due to unprecedented soil subsidence, sea level rise, and the thousands of oil and gas canals that have allowed saltwater intrusion and erosion, the once-wooded landscape is slowly disappearing beneath the sea.
Since 1930, Louisiana’s coastal plain has lost more than 2,000 square miles of land – about the size of Delaware, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Isle de Jean Charles, the historical homeland of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, is the most desperate example of the state’s vanishing coast.
Island native Calvin Naquin, 50, has seen it firsthand. “I remember when I was growing up,” he said. “Down the bayou there were woods we could play in. But now it’s all washed up. All ate up.”
The dense marsh and woods once provided an effective buffer against powerful hurricanes. But no more. Most of the houses are now raised 15 feet or more on pilings. Anything lower than that would be inundated with mud and water, and there are many houses lower than that.
For the last nearly 90 years, the south Louisiana wetlands have been collapsing like a sponge cake. The controlling factor is subsidence. In 1928, the Flood Control Act authorized the building of levees to keep the Mississippi River within its banks, but in an unanticipated consequence, the levees prevented sediment-laden spring floods from replenishing the marshes. For millennia, it had been a battle between the river building land and the gulf taking it back. Now, without the sediment, it’s a battle between the gulf and gravity. Climate change and sea level rise has made the situation worse.
“It’s not that we’re happy to move, but everything is eroding,” says one resident of Isle de Jean Charles.
When the band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians arrived in the early 1800s, they settled on the highest ridge in the area, located on Isle de Jean Charles. In 1955, the island measured 22,400 acres. Now, only 320 acres remain. The surrounding wetlands are so compromised that even a strong south wind combined with a high tide will flood the only roadway linking the island to civilization.
That’s why many are finally giving up on their ancestral properties. “It’s not that we’re happy to move, but everything is eroding,” said Amy Handon, 39.
In January 2016, the community was awarded a first-of-its-kind $48 million relocation grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), worked out by the Louisiana State Office of Community Development and tribal leaders. The plan is generous, for sure. But the implementation has been clunky. In the 17 years since the concept of relocation was first discussed, islanders have grown impatient and distrustful. Plan administrators, on the other hand, have grown weary and defensive.
Much attention has been paid to this resettlement, with the tribe being called the nation’s first climate refugees. But there will be many more. Communities across south Louisiana have already seen a northern migration of residents and businesses due to concerns over a changing climate that is bringing more powerful storms and more severe flooding.
Two years after the $48 million was awarded, the resettlement is slowly taking shape. A new location has finally been identified — a 515-acre sugarcane farm about 40 miles north of the island near Thibodaux — and the state is in the midst of negotiations to purchase the land. Louisiana officials say construction will begin as quickly as possible, pointing out that all the federal money must be spent by September 2022.
Tribal Chief Albert Naquin feels the process has taken far too long already. “This was an emergency,” he said. “All this red tape needs to be pulled out. Now it seems like it will be 2019 before they even start building homes.”
Slow progress isn’t the only thing upsetting Naquin, and many others. They believed the original intent of the resettlement was to create a cohesive community for tribal members only. State officials, however, have clarified that it is likely anyone displaced from the Louisiana coastal zone will be welcome, not just the residents of Isle de Jean Charles. “We’re not moving a tribe. We’re moving a community,” said Pat Forbes, Executive Director of the Louisiana State Office of Community Development. “We’re spending federal funds, which will not allow us to discriminate based on tribal affiliation or anything else.”
Islanders adamantly insist the original relocation plan was not presented as a buyout of their ancestral assets.
Islanders also adamantly insist the original relocation plan was not presented as a buyout of their ancestral assets. Rather, they say they were told that if they accepted a new home in the resettlement, they would be allowed to retain ownership and access to their Isle de Jean Charles lands — and the structures built there — that have been part of their tribe’s heritage for two centuries. But Forbes said that would be “without precedent,” and “is way beyond anything HUD has ever even thought about. It would be unheard of to allow the property to be anything but green space.” He reiterated, “Public green space.”
“They want to tear down the houses,” said Handon, who is a member of the tribe’s relocation steering committee. She is in the process of moving with her family to the nearby city of Houma, but still hopes to return to Isle de Jean Charles someday. “They want to bulldoze it down. I don’t think that’s going to sit well with a lot of people.”
Trusting the government’s word and promises doesn’t come naturally for this tribe, and the project leaders know that. “I don’t want to have nothing to do with them,” Edison Dardar Jr., 69, said in his heavy French dialect. “I was born and raised on this island. That’s my home.” He says he’s not even keeping track of the resettlement anymore. “I keep track of when the fish are going to come in — when the shrimp going to come in, when the crab are going to bite. That — I keep track of that.”
Many islanders, however, are moving away, “a little bit at a time,” said Therese Billiot, who cares for her aging father, Wenceslaus, 91, a tribal leader, and her mother Denecia, 93. People are being driven away, Therese said, as storms take an increasingly devastating toll.
Two years ago, it was estimated that anywhere between 65 to 100 men, women, and children were left on the island, scattered among 25 families. Today, islanders guess that half of them have already moved to take advantage of a temporary housing grant from HUD — about $1,100 per family per month for an apartment in Houma until the development is built out. The island now has an eerie feeling of abandonment. Peeling paint, broken windows, and overgrown lots are common. One front door swings open and shut with the breeze.
But some still linger. Wenceslaus Billiot knows the process has dragged on too long for him. He knows that his remaining time on his cherished island and in the tidy house where he raised his seven children is limited. As he and his wife shuffle from room to room on their walkers, they know they won’t be part of the new community. “Oh yeah, we’re going to move from here,” he said. “We’re gonna move after we die… to the cemetery” across the bayou.
But in this part of Louisiana, even the cemeteries are sinking beneath the sea.