As Gulf swallows Louisiana island, displaced tribe fears the future

As Gulf swallows Louisiana island, displaced tribe fears the future

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — It’s all but assumed this island will one day disappear beneath the waves.

Perhaps the water will only cover the road, leaving Isle de Jean Charles a Venetian ghost town in Cajun country. Maybe the water will rise higher, or the island will sink lower, and only rooftops will be visible to passing boats and those wondering what used to be here. 

By then, those who could say will no longer be around to tell. At least, that’s the plan. 

The state of Louisiana is three years into an ambitious $48 million plan to move Isle de Jean Charles residents northward onto the mainland. Most are French-speaking members of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, a group of interrelated and indigenous descendants of tribes whose ancestors fled the Trail of Tears and found refuge in the bayous.

Since 1955, they’ve seen the island shrink from 22,000 acres to 320, a loss of 98 percent. Barrier marshland responsible for keeping floodwaters low withered away. Mink and muskrat traps now turn up empty on these ancestral hunting grounds.

Land loss and higher storm surges led to an exodus of residents. After Hurricane Barry, more abandoned houses than ever dot the landscape, and it’s estimated that less than 50 still reside where a community of 400 once thrived. Those remaining on Isle de Jean Charles have been dubbed the nation’s first climate change refugees, a title many in the tribe dislike despite the attention it’s garnered their cause. 

“Starting in the ’70s and ’80s, as storms come in and go out, so do the people,” said Chantel Comardelle, secretary for the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe. “And we’ve noticed a transition away from cultural traditions and a disconnect as a tribal community. If that continues, the culture is lost.” 

Since the topic of resettlement was first broached 20 years ago, Isle de Jean Charles has been the subject of numerous articles, climate change reports, and books. It also inspired the 2012 film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Now the world is watching as Louisiana undertakes its first-ever attempt at climate change-fueled resettlement.

The state has purchased a sugar cane field 40 miles north as the site of the new community, and Louisiana’s Office of Community Development (OCD) has spent the past two years asking residents what would make a federally-funded housing community feel more personal.  

“We not only want to help carry that culture and sense of community up to the new location. We want it to be so it attracts folks back who had to leave before,” said Pat Forbes, the executive director of OCD, which applied for the grant with participation from the tribe.

Many hope this will provide a blueprint for the future as rising seas are projected to advance upon more low-lying communities. Louisianians learn in grade school that, on average, a football field of coast is devoured every hour by the hungry tide. In 2013, the NOAA wiped 31 place names from their Louisiana charts. They were placed in the “historical” category. 

But Isle de Jean Charles presents a unique challenge for Forbes’ office. It secured $48 million of federal grant money in 2016, but the plan is no longer supported by tribal leadership, and it’s yet to be seen if the new settlement will be the clarion call that reunites a scattered tribe.

Houses can be built. Gardens can be replanted. But how do you package a sense of home for an indigenous people that’s losing theirs? And how do you make sure it doesn’t break in the move? 

“If the resettlement would go 100 percent perfect, there’s still a loss and mourning that’s going to happen,” Comardelle said. “You can replace a house. But you can’t replace a home.”

‘It’s water all over the place’

For outsiders, the road into Isle de Jean Charles is perhaps the first indicator that something is amiss.

The narrow, two-lane ribbon of asphalt connecting the island to the mainland sits level with the Gulf. On a windy day, water washes onto the surface from whichever side the gusts blow. During storms, the road disappears beneath the tide entirely. 

“Whenever high tide comes, we cannot go out. It may not be flooded here on the island, but the road becomes impassable,” said Father Roch Naquin, a retired priest and native of the island.

Island Road is the only road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland. Residents say it floods at high tide.

The 86-year-old Naquin fondly remembers life before the mainland bridged his home to the outside world. Sitting on the porch of his raised house, gazing at a horizon once blocked by trees, it’s what Naquin no longer sees that will be difficult for the state to replace. 

Pastures of pigs, cows and chickens. Fisherman hauling in the fresh catch. Crops of okra, potatoes, green beans and melon. Among the live oaks and pecan orchards were vines and trees Naquin’s father, a traiteur or faith healer, would apply medicinally. 

But the island is empty now, and Naquin no longer remembers the names of his father’s healing herbs. It’s been a while since he’s had to say them. 

“We don’t have that anymore. Now we just go to the doctor,” Naquin said. 

Hurricane Barry brought eight feet of water to Isle de Jean Charles prompting some to consider if they should stay.
Hurricane Barry brought eight feet of water to Isle de Jean Charles prompting some to consider if they should stay.

Isle de Jean Charles residents were never wealthy, but farming and fishing sustained life on the relatively secluded ridge of marsh. Elders of the tribe love to tell how they didn’t learn of the Great Depression until after it had ended. 

Like many island residents, Father Roch is a direct descendant of Jean Charles Naquin, for whom the island is named. 

According to the tribe’s oral history, life on Isle de Jean Charles bloomed from a forbidden union between Frenchman Jean Marie Naquin and Native American Pauline Verdin. The couple was exiled and moved to the narrow ridge of marsh that Jean Marie named for his father. Four of their children married Indians — the tribe’s preferred term — from various tribes, and the isle’s isolation led to the families and tribes blending together over time and forming a tight-knit community. 

Today, facial features repeat as often as last names, and those born on the island still sprinkle sentences with bits of French. Okra might be “okee gumbo.” Those who once hunted pouldeau, a type of waterfowl, will tell you they no longer roost in these waters. Isle de Jean Charles is pronounced “Eel de Jean Shawl.”

Tulane University linguist Nathalie Dajko began studying south Louisiana French dialects in 2006. Even then, the effects of climate change on the island were apparent. 

Family photos of Isle de Jean Charles residents no longer matched the backyards where they were taken. Dajko was particularly struck by an encounter in 2008, when she showed a satellite image to a local while helping a colleague search for an Indian burial mound. 

“They were like, ‘This is out of date. This is all water, this is all water. This is so wrong. How old is this picture?'” Dajko said. “It was from 2005. Three years and it was just drastically changed.”

Isle de Jean Charles wasn’t always an island.

Residents who didn’t want to row a pirogue — a flat-bottomed canoe — across the water to nearby town Pointe Aux Chênes could take the wagon trail through the marsh if the tide wasn’t high. A satellite image from 1963 shows more grass than water.

The opposite is true today. 

“Now all the marsh is gone,” Naquin said. “It’s water all over the place.”

While climate change now threatens Naquin’s home, mankind had a hand in sinking it.

Levees built along the Mississippi River after the 1928 Flood Control Act stopped freshwater floods that had kept the marsh alive and the land elevated with fresh, fertile sediment.

Around the same time the road was planned, oil companies took interest in the land the government had called “uninhabitable swamp” until 1876 and cut canals around the island. The influx of saltwater killed the marsh grasses. Trees that once offered shelter from hurricane-force winds were turned a skeletal white by the salt. 

“It let the water in faster and hastened the soil sinking,” Naquin said.

From then, years became measured in hurricanes and floods. 

Naquin’s family’s house stood on two-foot blocks and had never flooded since it was built in 1957. In 1964, Hurricane Hilda put a foot of water in the home for the first time. 

“And it just continued on,” Naquin said. “Hurricane Juan came (in 1985) and put a lot of water in the house so I told my mother I think we need to raise the house up a little bit. So we put it on eight-foot blocks and we were okay for a couple of hurricanes. Then Hurricane Lili came in 2002 and it put a couple inches of water in the house. So I said, ‘I guess it’s time to go higher again.’”  

Each hurricane drove more neighbors away. Now Naquin’s house sits 11-feet off the ground, and there are fewer people than ever to help rebuild if the water keeps rising. 

Father Roch’s namesake, Saint Roch, is the patron saint of miraculous cures. Even so, the idea of the island being saved is beyond him. 

His phone still buzzes with requests for prayers though it’s been 21 years since his last Sunday sermon. 

When left alone, he prays for the island, and hopes its residents be open to leaving it. 

“If there’s an opportunity to move to higher ground, common sense says take advantage of it,” Naquin said. 

The planned site of the resettlement community for Isle de Jean Charles residents in Schriever, La.
The planned site of the resettlement community for Isle de Jean Charles residents in Schriever, La.

Building a new home

The new Isle de Jean Charles will be no isle at all. Instead, it’s a 550-acre sugarcane field an hour’s drive north of the coast in Schriever, Louisiana.

The property, purchased by the state for $11 million this year, has a 0.2 percent chance of flooding, meaning that mathematically, one flood is expected in the area every 500 years.

It’s the exact plot of land Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe Chief Albert Naquin chose for the tribe when he began planning a resettlement community in the early 2000s.

For the past two years, OCD’s resilience policy analyst Jessica Simms has traveled to the island, spending days on porches with Isle de Jean Charles residents willing to leave for a new life. They discussed preferred housing style and spacing. Some residents have begun gathering indigenous plants for the new community. A lake is planned for the new property, though some residents were concerned about learning to fish in freshwater after a life spent in the salt. 

“What’s struck me is the strong attachment to place. The island is how residents know who they are. It’s their identity compass, in a way, and the process of making a decision to move off the island…it’s probably the most difficult thing they’ve done,” Simms said. 

Simms and Forbes are not ignorant to the potential for culture shock, even as the state tries to replicate an existing one.

“We can’t recreate their ability to walk out the backdoor and catch shrimp with a cast net. Not and get them up to a place that’s safe where they wanted to be,” Forbes said. “The architecture, the plants they have there, the wetlands and water features available, all those things are important. And we’re going to do all those things. But it’s not going to be like living on the island.”

But for Chief Naquin, whose resettlement proposal was used in the submission of the state’s HUD application, the plan is a far cry from his vision.

Four boys sit on a pirogue, a flat-bottomed canoe many Isle de Jean Charles residents used to get to the mainland before Island Road was built in 1953.
Four boys sit on a pirogue, a flat-bottomed canoe many Isle de Jean Charles residents used to get to the mainland before Island Road was built in 1953.

“I asked for them to take (the tribe) out of the paperwork,” Naquin said. “It’s the people from the island, but not the tribal community.”

Elected chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe in 1997, Naquin had first bristled at the thought of mass resettlement.

The premise was initially suggested in the early 2000s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was then planning a 72-mile system of dams, levees and locks designed to protect the coast called the Morganza-to-the-Gulf project.

Isle de Jean Charles, which had 277 residents at the time, was not included in the plans.

Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District director Jerome Zeringue announced the system would provide hurricane protection “to over 90 percent of the residents” and told reporters, “There were a few people left out, unfortunately.”

Naquin wrote the Corps asking the island to be included. When the Corps suggested relocation instead, Naquin was incensed. 

“History is being relived all over again for the Indian community of the Island,” Naquin wrote in a 2002 letter to the Corps. “History has it that Indians were always being relocated to reservations by the white man.”

But the more Naquin considered the idea, the more it appealed to him. 

Naquin fled Isle de Jean Charles in 1975 after losing a second home to floodwater. The tribe estimates that 700 of its members are now scattered across south Louisiana. 

What if Naquin led the charge for a new home? One where every member of the tribe was welcome, where old traditions could be made new away from the greedy arm of the Gulf. 

There would be a community center with a museum to teach future generations about their ancestors. There would be a store like the one his grandfather used to own on the island where his cousin would play Hank Williams tunes. Sales would support the older members, some of whom live on social security and can’t afford mainland property tax, utilities or insurance. 

That was what Naquin envisioned. When the state received $48 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Naquin thought he had saved his culture and reunited his people.  

Three years later, he no longer believes that. 

After more than a decade spent convincing island residents to flee for higher ground, Comardelle said the tribe “is no longer participating” in the resettlement process, and the chief said he is “proud” of those who want to stay.

“I want them to stay,” Naquin said. “We’re not getting what we bargained for. The state took it over and it was supposed to be a model community with a community center with child care, elderly care. A lot of activities so kids can play in a safe environment. But all that kind of got shoved in a hole and we can’t get it out. It’s very disappointing, actually. I’m very depressed.”

Rumors of outsiders offering to buy Isle De Jean Charles camps has prompted some to put up signs such as this.
Rumors of outsiders offering to buy Isle De Jean Charles camps has prompted some to put up signs such as this.

A chief’s vision versus a state’s plan

The rift between the state and the tribe formed after the relocation grant was awarded. The OCD discovered that not all occupants of Isle de Jean Charles belonged to Naquin’s tribe. 

A few residents are members of the United Houma Tribe, and one resident is not affiliated with any tribe. 

While Naquin insists the plan had never been to exclude any island residents, federal law prohibits discrimination against anyone in the building of a housing project, and the state’s publicity of the project became less about the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and more about those who lived on the island since Hurricane Isaac struck in 2012. 

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Those who met that requirement would get a house in the new community. For anyone who once lived on the island, a lot will be provided as long as they can afford to build a house on the property. 

In Forbes’ mind, the mission had never changed. A threatened community would be rescued from the coast. Those who wanted to stay on Isle de Jean Charles can stay. And the new settlement’s vacant lots offered an opportunity for reunion that’s been a long time coming.

“If we wanted to just move people out of harm’s way, we would follow the standard model of buyouts and just give everybody money to buy a house somewhere,” Forbes said. “HUD wouldn’t have given us money for that. People have done that 1,000 times. What they gave us money for was to not only get folks out of harm’s way, but to figure out how to do that in a way that not only helps them maintain the culture of the island, but really start to build it back to what it was before.”

An Indian house made of mud and palmetto in Fa La, Louisiana. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe says their early homes were similarly constructed.
An Indian house made of mud and palmetto in Fa La, Louisiana. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe says their early homes were similarly constructed.

And the state has already been able to apply the lessons learned in the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement. Since plans for the Schriever community began, the state has begun a buyout program for the Pecan Acres community in Pointe Coupee Parish, which has flooded 17 times since the subdivision was built in the late 1970s. All 40 households will move to a new community together. Another perennially flooding community, Silver Leaf in Ascension Parish, is also being relocated. 

“Isle de Jean Charles is a much bigger objective of trying to reconstitute that community to its own population, culture, sense of community. They have shrunk a great deal. We’re trying to build a community that is big enough, vibrant enough and has economic opportunities close enough that we can have people coming back to the community,” Forbes said.

Naquin and Forbes’ goals sound the same. And yet, the chief is convinced his dream of reuniting his tribe in a homestead chosen by his people and for his people has been dashed. 

Twenty-three families have agreed to move to the settlement, which won’t be completed for a few more hurricane seasons. Until then, OCD has used some of the funds to pay for temporary housing for 22 households. Seven families have accepted state assistance, but will build elsewhere rather than live in the planned community. If the state fails to convince enough current and former Isle de Jean Charles residents to fill the lots, they will be opened to the general public.

“It’s not the material thing. It’s the visiting. It’s the family ties we used to have that we don’t have anymore,” Naquin said. “We were trying to get together. And the way the state has it is just going to split us apart more than we are now.

“My vision was too great, I guess. Not realistic.”

Why is Isle de Jean Charles disappearing? A timeline of land loss

What’s next

The design phase is not expected to be completed until late spring and will be followed by the bidding and building phases. 

The state expects to send out lawyers over the summer to explain to residents their legal obligations should they move to the new settlement. And here’s where the challenges begin for a community that is poor by mainland standards but has historically had little need for money. 

Most Isle de Jean Charles residents don’t pay property taxes, due to the low property value, or flood insurance. Those who accept a house from the state will have to pay both.

Forbes said the state is calculating the change in cost of living and is working to find ways to offset new costs with solar panels or energy efficient housing designs, adding, “You have to make sure they can afford to live in a new place.” 

Island Road is the only road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland. Residents say it floods at high tide.
Island Road is the only road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland. Residents say it floods at high tide.

Should a community member find they can’t afford it, there would likely be no home on Isle de Jean Charles to return to, whether or not it’s taken by the water.

Those who accept state assistance are barred from repairing any property they own on Isle de Jean Charles, a common stipulation with federal buyout programs that will ensure the wooden camps fall into disrepair. 

The road to the island was repaved in 2011, but it was not raised and Terrebonne Parish officials told the tribe the road will not be fixed again. 

The state has said it will allow former residents to visit Isle de Jean Charles as long as it is accessible, but no government entity will have a hand in prolonging its lifespan. 

“We have a unique situation here because these are not vacation homes,” Forbes said. “This is their ancestral home that we’re trying to leave them access to. But at the same time the federal interest is not served by having other people move to this obviously dangerous place to live.”

‘This is my home’

Pushing his bike down Island Road, one hand carrying a bucket and a cast net, Edison Dardar sees no danger.

Dardar was born on the island. He made a living catching shrimp from these waters, though he now only catches enough for his family and his cat. His surname goes back centuries, appearing on headstones in the island’s lone cemetery and in post-hurricane newspaper clippings, where a Terry Dardar tells a reporter, “I ain’t moving. I been living here all my life.”

It’s a mantra Dardar has adopted, even as more lots go empty around him. 

Isle de Jean Charles resident Edison Dardar casts his net for shrimp. A retired fisherman, seafood is still integral to life on the island and hearkens back to how residents sustained themselves before a road connected them to the mainland.
Isle de Jean Charles resident Edison Dardar casts his net for shrimp. A retired fisherman, seafood is still integral to life on the island and hearkens back to how residents sustained themselves before a road connected them to the mainland.

“Why am I going to leave a good place to live in a place I don’t know nothing? This is my home. Fish when I want. Holler if I want to holler. They have no shrimp, fish or crabs in their backyard. I do,” Dardar said. 

It doesn’t matter if he’s approached by government or God. Dardar is content being one of a handful of residents who will not be moved. He doesn’t believe the island is shrinking, and he’s unphased by the thought he might be wrong.

Three times Dardar’s house has not been where he left it.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew pushed the house off its three-foot risers and into the middle of the road. Before that, Hurricane Camille put the home he built next to his neighbor’s. 

“We came back, jacked it up. We put it back on the block,” Dardar said. 

There has always been a place to put it back.

Edison Dardar works on a porch railing damaged by Hurricane Barry on Isle de Jean Charles on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.
Edison Dardar works on a porch railing damaged by Hurricane Barry on Isle de Jean Charles on Monday, Sept. 16, 2019.

Two months ago, Dardar vowed not to leave his home as Hurricane Barry lumbered close to shore. The next day, Dardar found himself hanging from a Coast Guard helicopter, watching his island sink beneath the eight-foot surge. 

Again, he was able to return.

But even as that becomes less of a guarantee, Dardar is content to enjoy Isle de Jean Charles until the ocean swallows it whole.  

On this particular morning, Dardar is working to repair a porch railing damaged by Barry. The storm swept away his front steps and shook most of the unripe persimmons from his tree, but otherwise, his house is still safe on its 12-foot stilts. 

“When I need insurance on a 12-foot house, then it’s time to go,” Dardar said.

As is his routine, Dardar eventually stops working, grabs his bucket, climbs onto his bike, and pedals to the dock where he tosses his cast net every day. 

As he nears the road leading into the island, he passes a clock tacked to a utility post. It features a portrait of The Last Supper above the clock face, and the hands have stopped ticking. 

“Nobody knows when Isle de Jean Charles is going to go. Only God knows that,” Dardar said. “I got a grandpa buried in the cemetery over there. That’s my dream. This is my home.”

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 334-240-0121 or email him at ayawn@gannett.com. 

Climate collision: Loss and survival in a changing world

Across America, the jobs and traditions, cultural touchstones and ways of living that have defined our communities are changing fast.  

A warming planet is reordering how we live and how we see ourselves. It’s putting our homelands and historic sites underwater, disrupting how we harvest crops, catch fish and raise livestock. It’s raising our risks of diseases and disrupting how we run our businesses and cities.  

As the planet changes, Americans are changing with it. Some will reinvent old ways to survive in a new world. Others won’t have time, or space, to adapt. Their livelihoods, histories and homes will become the climate’s casualties.  

All year, the USA TODAY Network explores America, from its inundated coasts to its peaks of melting snow, to reveal these stories of change. These are the climate’s casualties — and its survivors.  

This story was published in partnership with The American South, your source for journalism that exposes the wrongs and celebrates what’s right about the region.

This article originally appeared on The American South: Climate refugees: Isle de Jean Charles tribe searches for new home


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