The people of Isle de Jean Charles, La., are among the country's first displaced by climate changeThe people of Isle de Jean Charles, La., are among the first in the U.S. displaced by climate change. Photo credit: Karen Savage

By Karen Savage

Once a sprawling island, Isle de Jean Charles today is a mere sliver of what it used to be, more than 98 percent of its land having been swept into the Gulf of Mexico over the past 60 years by an increase in severe storms and rising seas. It’s why the tiny community was awarded the first-of-its-kind $48.3 million federal grant in 2016 to resettle further inland.

But even though the population, members of the Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw tribe, had dwindled to a mere 100 by the time that grant was awarded, even that money has not brought swift relief. Many are frustrated with months of delays and a web of federal regulations, a process that has prompted Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw tribe, to warn other communities against relocating with federal money.

“I guess the reason I would say ‘don’t do it’ is because of all of the red tape,” said Naquin. “Two years ago, we received our grant money and the land has still not been purchased. I don’t understand all that. It was supposed to be an emergency deal.”

The tribe’s plight serves as a cautionary tale to many other communities because while Isle de Jean Charles residents are among the first in the country to be displaced by climate change, experts say rising sea levels could displace between 4.2 million and 13.1 million U.S. residents by 2100. Many of the threatened communities will be far larger than Isle de Jean Charles, making the prospect of relocating even more daunting.

“The amount of money we’re spending to do this resettlement is in no way sustainable for the level of work, the scale of the work that’s going to have to be done all over the country,” said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development–Disaster Recovery Unit (OCD-DRU), which received the grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The road to Isle de Jean Charles, La.
The road to Isle de Jean Charles is being overtaken by the sea, as is the island itself. Photo credit: Karen Savage

Isle de Jean Charles residents have seen this future coming for a long time and over the years, many relocated inland to escape the rising seas and frequent storms. Flood modeling predicts within a few decades the island will be completely uninhabitable for the 37 families, or about 100 people, who remain. At its largest, the population was more than 400, but many are now scattered across southern Louisiana.

The tribal council voted to resettle in 2002, after a major U.S Army Corps of Engineers  levee realignment project excluded the island from its hurricane protection. For nearly two decades, the tribe worked to come up with a plan that would relocate both those who’d already moved and those still living on the island to a new community located safely inland.

In 2015, the tribe worked with a group of state and parish leaders to submit the plan as an application to the National Disaster Resilience Competition, in which states that experienced a major disaster in 2011, 2012 or 2013 could compete for federal funding to help rebuild and increase their resilience.

The plan was accepted and in 2016, $48 million dollars was allocated to Louisiana for the resettlement of the entire tribe in one location.

“We were all excited because they had listened to us and we were going to put our community members back together. Isle de Jean Charles is family oriented, so it was going to put mom and dad and the kids back together, cousins and relatives back together so us older folks could show the kids how the island was back in the 50’s and 60’s, everyone took care of each other, the kids took care of the elders, of one another,” said Naquin.

A goal is to preserve the island’s unique Native American culture, but since the grant was awarded, there has been disagreement about tribal affiliations and who should be allowed to move to the new settlement.

According to Naquin, all of the households living full-time on the island are members of his Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw tribe and only tribal members should live in the new community.

The United Houma Nation, another Louisiana tribe, disputes that, saying some families are on its tribal roll. Forbes said some residents aren’t affiliated with either tribe and that federal regulations stipulate the new community include all island residents.

Naquin said the current plan has strayed from the original plan that called for the reuniting of the Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw and no longer meets the needs of his community.

Chief Albert Naquin
Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimatcha-Choctaw tribe. Photo credit: Karen Savage

Chief Thomas Dardar of the United Houma Nation told Houma Today that his intent is not to sabotage the project, but to make sure the money goes to residents of the island regardless of tribal affiliation.

“We just want to be at the table,” Dardar said shortly after the grant was awarded. “We want to make sure we’re in it and that the project succeeds. It’s in our best interest that it does succeed.”

Forbes said while getting the HUD grant was a pleasant surprise, it hasn’t been a perfect fit and has led to frustration with the slow pace of progress.

“We’re dealing with grant programs whose standard purpose is building affordable housing for people, not resettling entire communities from a sinking island,” said Forbes.

“Nobody’s done what we’re doing, trying to adapt the project to the funding source is quite challenging,” he said.

That problem will be writ large when the communities to be relocated in the future are much larger and Forbes said innovative financing approaches will be needed to pay for large-scale relocations.

“Every single place is going to be different, the resources that are available for each community is going to be different, and there’s not going to be a single funding source that’s big enough to do them all,” he said.

While Forbes did not elaborate, government funding, offshore royalties and litigation to force the oil and gas industry to pay for damages to the coast and to the climate have all been suggested as possible ways to pay for future relocations.

Forbes’ office recently announced it intends to purchase a 515-acre former sugar cane farm near Schriever—about 40 miles north of the island—for $11.7 million, but the type of housing and other infrastructure to be built has yet to be finalized.

“There’s the challenge of trying to maintain the culture of the island as much as possible when its culture is so closely linked to the water and the marsh and how do we balance that with getting them to a place that’s safe,” said Forbes.

It’s unknown how many current residents of Isle de Jean Charles will choose to move to the new location. A 2016 survey by the state found 23 of the 37 households were interested in resettling.

Naquin said many of the remaining residents no longer want to move, something he blames on both changes to the plan and the slow pace.  

Forbes said because residents are being forced by nature to relocate, the move is particularly traumatic, especially for the elderly.

“They’ve grown up there their whole life and even though modeling predicts that the island won’t be habitable for a whole lot longer, it might make it through some of these folks’ lives and they prefer to spend their days out there,” he said, adding that his office will not force anyone to move.  

Hilton Chaisson, 69, grew up on the island and raised his family there. He said storms routinely wash several feet of water and mud into his house, but he isn’t asking for help and he isn’t going to move.

“I told them people when they asked me about my house, I said when a hurricane comes the water and the mud and all that, do I ask you to come in and wash my house and clean it?  I don’t ever ask none of y’all to come and clean it—we do the clean up by ourselves,” said Chaisson from the edge of a long neat porch.

“I ain’t moving. They’re gonna move me when I die—in a box.”

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