Sea level rise and land loss is affecting communities all over the world, not just in Louisiana. But Louisiana has one of the first communities that will be entirely resettled as a result: the Isle de Jean Charles.
On a recent evening on the island, a dozen men gather in the dusk on little wooden fishing platforms.
67-year-old Edison Dardar casts a weighted shrimping net into the murky water, and pulls it back, over and over again.
“Every night we do that,” Dardar says. “That’s how we do it!” He can usually catch ten or 20 pounds a night.
A Native American living off the land—it seems like a timeless scene. But 20 years ago you could never catch shrimp from the shore of the island. 100 years ago, Isle de Jean Charles was in the middle of a fresh-water marsh. And these shrimp are ocean creatures.
It’s just one example of how dramatically the ecosystem has changed along the gulf. The marshy coastal fingers created by Mississippi River sediment have eroded, and the ocean is taking over. As saltwater comes into the marshes it’s making them brackish rather than fresh.
Fifty years ago, when the island was surrounded by fresh water, Dardar hunted for alligator and oysters. Back then the island was 11 miles long and hundreds of families lived there. Now it’s just two miles long, and there are only about 60 people left.
“I’m a fisherman and I lived all my life here,” Dardar says. “I don’t know nothing about no other work or anything like that.”
This island is one of the first communities along the Gulf coast that will be taken over by the sea—probably within two decades. There are three main reasons.
First, hurricanes: With less marsh to protect it, each storm washes away more of the island.
Second, dredging: Oil and gas companies have carved canals through the delicate marshes so that boats can reach offshore oil rigs.
Finally, climate change: Sea level rise is swallowing what’s left of the island.
“We all know that this eventually will be taken over by the saltwater,” says Albert Naquin, chief of the Native American tribe that lives on the island. “Eventually this is going to disappear.”
The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw moved here in the 1800s from all over the south to escape discrimination on the mainland after the federal Indian Removal Act.
Chief Naquin says it’s not just the island that’s washing away—it’s the tribe itself. Without a place to call home, the tribe has started to scatter and assimilate into mainland culture. After every hurricane, more people move away. Most of the tribe has moved to higher ground.
Naquin left himself, after he and his young family barely survived a hurricane back in the 70s.
“We took like 11 inches of water in my house, lost new appliances and new furniture and all that,” Naquin says.
He moved to nearby Pointe-aux-Chenes, where he lives with his wife and elderly father-in-law. Naquin used to sell natural gas. Has a big garage with a motorcycle and a truck—things he says he probably wouldn’t have if he hadn’t moved away from the island.
The crisis is dividing the tribe between the members on the island and those that have left. It’s not a simple choice for anyone. Naquin resents having to choose between culture and prosperity.
“Unless maybe you're Indian you’ll never understand,” he says. “We’re attached to this land. Like the fishermen would say, ‘it’s in our blood.’”
But the way Naquin sees it, the tribe has to adapt to survive. Like it or not, everyone will eventually have to move. And the tribe’s culture will disappear along with them.
This January, the federal government gave the tribe $48 million to relocate—almost $2 million per family. Naquin wants to do more than save individuals on the verge of losing their home. He wants to use the money to reunite the tribe and save the culture for generations.
The plan will set a precedent. It’s the first community to be forced to move, but it won’t be the last.
When he learned that the tribe could get millions of dollars to relocate, Chief Naquin immediately started putting together a monumental plan to recreate that experience for future generations.
The tribal council worked together with planners and academics to design a new community that would meet the needs of everyone on the island, and appeal to those who have moved away.
Built 30 miles inland, in the sugarcane flatlands, it would be modeled after their current home. The houses would be built in a half circle in a shape of a palm leaf - a sacred symbol.
“We’d be starting our culture all over again and teaching our kids,” Naquin says. “Because right now they scattered all around. They have no idea where our culture was before.”
There would be a community center, a health clinic, and an open pow-wow field. They will even stock the water with crawfish so they can harvest them. They plan to bring plants from the island to complete the picture.
Perhaps most importantly, there are houses for 150 families, not just the 27 families on the island. Naquin is basically hoping he can get the entire tribe to migrate again, like they did in the 19th century. He has to convince the tribal members who have moved away over the years to uproot all over again and join him. And he has to convince the ones on the island to move before the next big storm.
Edison Dardar thinks Naquin’s plan is crazy. To him, moving 30 miles north would be like moving to Mars.
“Over here you can go walk or ride, ride the bike, run if you want to run,” he says. “If I moved over there, what am I going to do - stay in the house all day long, just wait to get old and die?”
But Naquin says that if they don’t move now, they won’t have another chance.
On top of the dissent within the tribe, the state is balking at the scope of Naquin’s plan. The tribe got $48 million from the federal grant, but his plan will cost $100 million. The rest would have to come from donations.
But the state’s actually in charge of how the money is spent. It has to approve any plan. And they are reluctant to create an incredibly expensive precedent for 27 families, knowing they will eventually have to move thousands more.
“The reinvigoration of this culture is key to this concept,” says Shirley Laska, a retired sociology professor from the University of New Orleans who helped Naquin design the plan.
“You have a tribe that has historically been an amazing group of people...and their culture of community dynamics, and language, and willingness to struggle to achieve goals is just remarkable. And it will be lost if only a small number of them are re-joined,” Laska says.
Naquin is in talks with the state to negotiate a new plan, but at this point it’s all up in the air. And time is running out—he wants to move his people before the next big hurricane washes more homes away.
He won’t settle for a trailer park or cookie-cutter subdivision for a few members of the tribe - to him, the only way to keep his tribe whole is to bring them back together in a place where they can thrive. Or just let the island—and the tribe with it—wash away.
This story is part of a joint-reporting project with NPR. You can listen to the NPR production here.
Support for WWNO’s Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.