Native community in Louisiana relocates as land washes away

Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana has lost 98 percent of its land to coastal erosion caused by sinking land and exacerbated by rising seas and increased storm surges. The tribal community that lives there will be the first to receive federal tax dollars to help them relocate in response to climate change. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

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  • By:

    Saskia de Melker and Melanie Saltzman

    Isle de Jean Charles is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico.

    The island has been on the front lines of coastal erosion for decades. The reasons are numerous: sinking land sped up by years of oil and gas exploration, and exacerbated by rising seas and increased storm surges. In just the last 100 years, Louisiana has lost 1,900 square miles of land, including valuable wetland ecosystems.

    The land loss has gotten so bad that the entire Native American tribe that calls the island home is now moving to a parcel of higher land further north.

    The relocation is happening thanks in large part to funding from the federal government. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $1 billion to projects across the country to become resilient to natural disasters. Louisiana was given $48 million dollars for the resettlement of the Isle de Jean Charles community, marking the first time that federal tax dollars are being allocated for community relocation in response to climate change.

    "We want to make sure that not only do we get the folks in Isle de Jean Charles moved up into a safe place and a community that can preserve their culture, but we want to have a model that people can replicate in other places," says Pat Forbes, Director of Louisiana's office of Community Development which is overseeing the resettlement.

    It's a model that communities across the United States may need soon, says Alex Kolker, a coastal geologist at Tulane University. "The rate that we see in Louisiana in terms of overall sea level rise are the kinds of rates that we might experience in the rest of the country in the middle part of the century as global warming accelerates."

    On Isle de Jean Charles, lifelong residents like Chris Brunet are slowly coming to accept that the resettlement plan is necessary as the island becomes uninhabitable.

    "I still find myself clinging on to this right here," he says. "It's just that I know that what I'm up against is greater than me and I just can't stop it."

    Read the full transcript below:


    Driving the road to Isle de Jean Charles feels like you're heading straight into the Gulf of Mexico. Until finally you reach a tiny sliver of land, land that's being swallowed by the sea. In the past 60 years, 98 percent of this island has disappeared.

    This is what it looked like in 1963: about 11 miles long and 5 miles wide. This is what it looks like today: about two miles long and a quarter of a mile wide.

    Albert Naquin is chief of a Native American tribe that has called this island home since the 1800s. He first told us about these changes during our visit for "PBS NewsHour" four years ago.


    All that water was land. Actually, it was basically all land, except for a few ponds here and there.


    So do you remember this, when you were growing up? How's it different?


    Different? Cause we had trees there. There were actually trees up in this area.


    Where we're standing?


    Where we're standing, yes.


    There are multiple causes for the continuing land loss, including decades of oil and gas canals speeding up erosion and the sinking of the land by three feet in the past century, Along with eight inches of sea level rise.

    One effect? The 60 or so people still living here must move, because the island is becoming uninhabitable.

    The Gulf of Mexico is ravaging the freshwater wetlands. The forest where residents once hunted and planted gardens now have rows of dead trees, poisoned by encroaching saltwater.

    When we met tribe member Chris Brunet in 2012, he wanted to stay on the island.

  • Chris Brunet (2012):

    This land may not be much, but this land is ours. And we are still here.


    But now he's decided to go, even though he's lived here all of his 50 years.


    I got around to thinking, okay, me at my age, I could probably finish off my life over here on this island. But what about the younger generation that's about ten, eleven, 12, 13, and all of this here? I don't think so. I am for the relocation. Moving as a community, it makes it a whole lot easier, to where you're just not beginning on your own, but that you're actually moving, you know, with family.

    The tribe's first choice is to relocate to this 500 acre parcel of land in Northern Terrebonne Parish about 40 miles to the north.


    The piece of land that we're looking at came out to be the best of all that we looked at. I mean there's no marsh, there's trees, and it's high ground.


    One goal of the relocation is to reunite with tribe members like Chantel Comardelle who already left the island and are dispersed along the Louisiana coast.

    Five generations of Comardelle's family have lived on the island. She visits there weekly with her children to see relatives, including her elderly grandparents.


    The plan right now is to move far enough north to where in a hundred years my great-grandkids won't have to worry about flooding still.


    Kristina Peterson is the director of the Lowlander Center, a non-governmental organization working with the tribe on its plan to relocate.


    It would be providing 42 houses. It would be providing all the infrastructure, the roads, all the different types of utilities. All the homes will be elevated at least ten feet so that they'll be secure, mitigated against storm surges or hurricanes, but also that the space underneath can be used for family space.


    The new community will be built partially with federal government funds. In January, Isle de Jean Charles was informed it will be granted 48 million dollars from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. That money was part of a larger "National Disaster Resilience Competition" that will divvy up a billion dollars to pay for projects that make communities more resilient to climate change.

    Marion Mcfadden runs the grant program and says it represents a policy shift from reacting to disasters to preparing for them.


    We see lots of other communities that have repetitive flood damage, for example. Or that have other dangers like forest fires. And so we've tried to create a larger conversation about how do we plan for that? How do we prepare for that? And where HUD is making funding available, how do we make sure that we're doing things that are gonna be cost effective to prevent the kind of harm that we've seen from past disasters?


    Part of what cost effective means is knowing when to invest in making a place stronger, and knowing when to invest in relocation.

    Hud awarded funds to projects in 10 states to support innovative ways to mitigate impacts of natural disasters. Everything from a clean energy project in Massachusetts, which will supply critical facilities in the event of power loss during natural disasters. To a project in New York City that constructs a coastal flood protection system.

    Isle de Jean Charles was the only relocation plan funded. Marking the first time the U.S. government is paying for community relocation in response to climate change. Mcfadden hopes the island's move will be a test case for building sustainable communities in places facing increasing risks from climate change.


    It sounds expensive when you have to build, you know, not just housing but all the infrastructure necessary and create a community facility. I absolutely understand that people think it sounds expensive. But we wanna do it right and share those lessons with other communities that are gonna be facing the same kinds of challenges.


    How close do they want to be to the island? How close do they want to be to the water? How close do they want to be to schools?


    Pat Forbes is the director of Louisiana's office of community development, which is overseeing the resettlement.


    We want to make sure that not only do we get the folks in Isle de Jean Charles moved up into a safe place and community that can preserve their culture, but we want to have a model that people can replicate in other places.


    Forbes says helping the isle de jean charles community is a priority. But there are many coastal communities in danger, and learning tangible lessons that can be replicated elsewhere is equally important.


    We're gonna figure out ways to do this economically, and most importantly, efficiently. So that we learn some of those things. I don't know the answer to what it's gonna look like to move a community of 3,000 people. But I think that when we finish this project, we'll have a lot better idea.


    Alex Kolker, a coastal geologist at tulane university, says the decisions here may foreshadow choices other areas face due to climate change.


    The rates that we see in Louisiana in terms of overall sea level rise are the kinds of rates that we might experience in the rest of the country in the middle part of the century as global warming accelerates. The land loss here is so extreme, we are seeing things in Louisiana that we might see in places like the Chesapeake Bay or New York 10, 20, 30 years from now.


    Kolker says a blueprint will be needed for American communities well beyond the Louisiana coast, if projections about sea level rise prove true.


    Coastal restoration is not simply about ecosystem restoration, right that it's not simply about protecting habitat for great blue herons and dolphins or something like that. This is really, coastal restoration is really about in many ways, it's about protecting places for people to live.


    I didn't become Governor to watch South Louisiana wash away.


    That's why politicians, scientists, and business leaders gathered at the "State of the Coast" conference last month in louisiana to talk about the eroding coastline, and the cost-benefit analysis for saving parts of it.

    Levees have been one means of protection. Like this 98-mile long levee being built by the Army Corps of Engineers and paid for with local and state taxes. But Isle de Jean Charles was not included, because it would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.


    On the other hand, Pointe Aux Chenes, a larger town north of Isle de Jean Charles, is included in that levee. Theresa Dardar lives there.

    Four years ago, she showed us a cemetery she could once walk to, taking us there by boat.

    Today, the encroaching water is worse. These telephone poles, some of which once stood on dry land just a few years ago, are now submerged. Her community is staying put as long as possible but is keeping a close watch on their neighbors' relocation.

  • Theresa Dardar:

    If the time comes that we have to do a relocation, a resettlement, whatever you want to call it, well then they'll already have the blueprint.


    Far away coastal communities hope to benefit from that blueprint as well. Due to land erosion, the residents of Newtok, Alaska have been planning for years to move 9 miles inland. But that hasn't happened due to lack of funds; HUD rejected Alaska's proposal.

    HUD administrator Mcfadden says her program received 7 billion dollars in requests for the 1 billion dollars it could grant.

  • Marion Mcfadden:

    Our money that we made available is a drop in the bucket against the need.


    For the Isle de Jean Charles community, the relocation is about more than just a safe place to live. The tribe is raising additional funds for renewable energy systems and community services at the new site.


    As it came further and further into the plan, we decided maybe we should do a community center, a health care center, maybe for elders' care, child care, a kind of education where we can tutor our kids.


    No one will be forced to move off Isle de Jean Charles, and those that do will retain rights to their part of the island — or what's left of it. Longtime residents like Chris Brunet are hopeful for a new start but say letting go of their ancestral home is hard.


    I find myself clinging on to this right here, so for me it's not so much that I'm abandoning it or letting it go. It's just that I know that what I'm up against that's greater than me, you know, I just can't stop it.

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