A native community in southern Louisiana hopes to make a historic move to higher ground, now that it has received a major federal grant for relocation. Awaiting finalization from the state, the tribe hopes to relocate within the next few years.
A narrow road extends from the Pointe-aux-Chenes community in southern Louisiana to a narrowing piece of marshland called Isle de Jean Charles. This coastal community, part of the Terrebonne Parish, was once a sprawling 22,000 acres or more. Now, it has eroded to a mere 320 acres. Here, homes are at risk from rising tides and sinking land.
This settlement is still considered homeland by more than 600 members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, although many tribal members have already dispersed. Hurricane Katrina took a toll in 2005, but the erosion of the area happened slowly over the past 50 years or more. Per analysts, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s.
“We the people of Isle de Jean Charles (Island) are being displaced by hurricanes, climate change and sea-level rise,” said Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. “The displacement of the people is causing the tribe to lose its culture. Also, the tribe is losing its family atmosphere.”
The chief explained that his tribe has attempted multiple times, unsuccessfully, to move out of harm’s way. They are concerned that, if the state does not fully cooperate with the move now that $48 million in federal funding has been secured, the tribe could cease to exist as a community.
The State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development was one of 13 applicants awarded disaster resilience grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. OCD is designated to receive a portion of the $1 billion distributed by HUD for projects designed to help U.S. communities prepare for future disasters. The resettlement of residents living on Isle de Jean Charles was one of OCD’s winning projects in HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition. OCD’s Disaster Recovery Unit took on the task of designing and carrying out the historic resettlement project.
The president of Terrebonne Parish, Gordon Dove, said: “We anticipate this effort will provide a model for future climate-change resettlements across the country.”
The coastal community worked over several years, with various stakeholders, to design a new plan. This include leaders on the local, state and federal level. The Lowlander Center paid particular attention to preserving the culture of the area and including community members in the planning process.
Chief Naquin says the tribe is now waiting on the state to do an environmental study, and also awaiting the process of finding a new location for resettlement. If this move can happen successfully, Naquin anticipates a better future for his tribe. “The bright spots will be: Our culture will come back to life. The people will be able to live stress-free, by just knowing that they will be able to make their doctor’s appointment, their kids will be able to go to school, if someone’s health becomes life threatening, the emergency crew can get to them, because there will be no flooded roads.”
The need to get residents to higher ground has long been studied by the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. CPRA spokesman Chuch Perrodin lamented, “It’s been a slow-motion disaster.” Perrodin noted that public policies dating back to the 1930s, developing systems of levees, and cutting off the Mississippi River from the Delta have disturbed the natural distribution of sediment that used to allow for land to build up instead of simply sinking and eroding. “Then, you get the sea-level rise on top of that, and it exacerbates it,” Perrodin said.
The Environmental Protection Agency reported that where coastal Louisiana has land that is sinking, the sea-level rise has been at least eight inches, more than the global average over the last half century.
Tribal history notes that the community of Isle de Jean Charles began from the marriage of Frenchman Jean Marie Naquin and his Native American bride Pauline Verdin. The community has kept the tradition of a chief throughout the years. The settlers also had a rich tradition of living off the land and sea, a way of life becoming nearly impossible to maintain with the loss of land and threats to clean water sources. Preserving fisheries, forestry and agriculture has become increasingly challenging.
The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw move is an anticipated three years or more down the road. In the meantime, CPRA’s Perrodin explained: “If you want to see the effects of climate change, you can see it in Louisiana, more than anywhere else in the word.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post said that HUD funds were dispersed to residents of Isle de Jean Charles directly. Funds will be granted to the State of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development for use in the relocation project.
Image courtesy isledejeancharles.com