Native Lands Wash Away as Sea Levels Rise
ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, LA | Along the coastal bayous of Louisiana, forests are full of dead bald cypress trees, their roots ravaged by saltwater that has been creeping increasingly inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
These ghost forests stand in stark contrast to the landscape of blooming trees and grazing cattle that Theresa Dardar walked across as a child to reach the burial site of her ancestors. Now as water is swallowing up her ancestors’ land, she takes a boat.
In the last 100 years, Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of coast. That means a swath of land the size of Manhattan has been lost on average each year.
“We’re not going to have anything for our children to see if it keeps on washing away,” said Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, one of a number of native tribes on Louisiana’s coast. “They’ll never see what we saw.”
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced thousands of Native Americans off their land, and tribes like the Pointe-au-Chien headed south and west to the bayou in the 1840s, settling along the Gulf Coast. Now they are losing their land to different forces.
Few understand the reality of this loss better than Dardar’s neighbors who live on a tiny strip of land across the bayou called Isle de Jean Charles. This area is home to a native community descending from Choctaw, Houma, Biloxi, and Chitimacha Indian tribes. Chief Albert Naquin of the isle’s band of Biloxi-Chitimacha grew up on the island and recalls a tight-knit community where they used to trap, hunt, and plant gardens.
“Life was like paradise,” he said. “If I was to be reborn again as a child, I’d want to be raised there — if the community was like it was back in 1946.”
Isle de Jean Charles represents a stark example of the vanishing coastline. In the 1950s, the island stretched 11 miles long and five miles across. Now it’s less than two miles long and a quarter-mile wide. Naquin moved off the island 36 years ago after repeated water damage and flooding of the island’s only road prevented him from reaching his job on the mainland. He’s not the only one – fewer than 30 families remain on the island, down from approximately 80 at its peak in 2002.
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“If somebody gets sick, then they need to be [medevaced by helicopter] out of here. But that’s just one of the things that you deal with,” said Chris Brunet, a resident. Despite being in a wheelchair and requiring a lift to reach his house on stilts, he is committed to living in his family home on the island where he cares for his niece and nephew, ages 9 and 10.
Barrier islands once softened the blow of storms here – now Isle de Jean Charles has itself become a barrier island for Louisiana. It is routinely battered with the brunt of storm surges that flood the island’s road and strand its residents. It’s a combination of forces in Louisiana’s Gulf coast that have brought the situation to this point.
In the 1920s, levees were built to channel the mighty Mississippi River and guard against floods, but they also kept sediment from reaching the delta marshlands to rebuild naturally-compacting wetlands. Without that sediment, the barrier islands and marshes slowly began to erode. Then came decades of oil exploration that carved miles and miles of canals along the marshlands used to transport oil. They now provide pathways for salty ocean water to eat away at freshwater wetlands.
Plus, the sea level rise in Southeast Louisiana is rising at an average rate of three feet every 100 years, according to tidal gauge records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That rate is five times higher than it was in the 1,000-year period prior to the industrial revolution, said Torbjorn Tornqvist, a coastal geoscientist at Tulane University.
“The last time we, this whole region, experienced rates like that is more than 7,000 years ago,” Tornqvist said. “And that’s a time when we still had a big ice sheet further north in North America that was melting at very high rates, which was the main cause of that rapid sea level rise.”
Sea level rise in Louisiana is also higher than other coastal areas in the nation because Louisiana is faced with a grim combination of rising oceans and subsidence – land sinking at a rapid rate, said Alex Kolker, a professor of coastal geology at Louisiana’s Universities Marine Consortium .
“The lesson that south Louisiana can provide to the nation is what a rate of high sea level rise can do to the coast.” Kolker said. ” It can convert land into open water, it can allow storm surges to propagate further inland, and it can be destructive to infrastructure and even people’s lives.”
For native communities, that destruction has left them with the difficult choice of whether to stay or go. Many here lack the resources to leave. Several tribes in the region are not recognized by the federal government, which means that they lack the assistance and benefits entitled to other Native Americans.
The task to protect the land comes at an enormous cost. The state recently passed a $50 billion plan over 50 years to restore the coast. Even so, tough choices have to be made, especially in places like Isle de Jean Charles, said Garret Graves, Chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. One of those choices was to leave Isle de Jean Charles outside the Morganza to the Gulf levee system.
“We determined that it would take literally hundreds of millions of dollars to build a levee around that community,” Graves said. “It didn’t rank as high as some other investments. You have to prioritize.”
So instead of a levee, the residents are being offered ‘non-structural measures’ including elevating property and flood proofing homes. But Chief Naquin still worries for the fate of his tribe.
“Eventually, when we all move off of the island and our people move into other communities, we lose our culture, our people, our land. ” said Chief Naquin, “Basically we’re losing everything that an Indian tribe has.”
Louisiana Public Broadcasting has more on the challenges facing the Mississippi River Delta in their documentary Turning the Tide and there is also a film-in-progess about the island called “Can’t Stop the Water.” by Rebecca and Jason Ferris.