Over the next century, rising
sea levels will change coastlines
all over the world. But the impact
might be most dramatic in South
Louisiana. A study out last month
predicts the state will lose up to
5000 square miles in the next
century – a chunk of land the size
of Connecticut. If the report’s
authors are right, that means a
lot of people in Louisiana are
going to have to relocate – become
climate refugees. Samara Freemark has the story of one of
the first communities to be displaced:
Over the next century, rising sea levels will change coastlines all over the world. But the impact might be most dramatic in South Louisiana. A study out last month predicts the state will lose up to 5000 square miles in the next century – a chunk of land the size of Connecticut. If the report’s authors are right, that means a lot of people in Louisiana are going to have to relocate – become climate refugees. Samara Freemark has the story of one of the first communities to be displaced:
It was sometime in the mid-1970s that Albert Naquin first realized that Isle de Jean Charles was sinking. Naquin had grown up on the island. He’s the chief of a group of Choctaws who have lived there since the 19th century – and when he was a kid, it was a pretty good community: it had stores, a couple of churches, horse pastures and fields. But those are all gone now.
“Salt water kept coming in, faster and faster, and now it’s basically just beach.”
Isle de Jean Charles is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.
The list of reasons why is long. There’s subsidence- that’s the natural phenomenon where delta regions kind of settle down on themselves. There are the dams that block the sediment that used to wash down and build the land back up. There are oil company canals that slice through the wetlands, hurricanes that tear up the island’s coastline, and, of course, there’s rising sea levels.
All together they explain why Isle de Jean Charles used to be about 4 miles across and now has shrunk to a quarter mile.
“Now, we see the disaster that is Isle de Jean.”
We’re in Naquin’s pickup truck, and he’s driving me out to the island.
“See this little house moved across the way, this house. These 1, 2, 3 are deserted.”
Naquin himself moved off the island awhile ago. But for years he was happy to support families who chose to stay. In fact, when the US government came to him in 2002 and offered to pay to help people move off the island, he resisted.
“So, I said, ‘what they gonna do, tell us they’re gonna move us there and then next thing send us a bill for the house?’ You know, so I said, ‘no, that’s just a modern day Trail of Tears. We’re not moving.’”
But lately Naquin has just gotten tired. Tired of evacuating people before storms, tired of helping them rebuild after, tired of watching the sea nibble away at the island.
And so he decided – enough. For the past year he’s been on a mission to convince the 25 families still living on the island to abandon it.
“They’re not going to save the island. It’s going to be gone. Either we move now or we move later, ‘cause we will move.”
But not everyone is ready to leave.
(sound of greeting and talking)
Naquin pulls over to talk to Dominique Dardar.
Dardar’s house was leveled by Hurricane Gustav last summer. He’s rebuilding it with pieces of other houses he’s found blowing around the island- bits of roof and siding. Dardar says he’s not moving.
“I ain’t never gonna move. I’m gonna stay over here. That’s my territory.”
Across the street Wenselas Billiot lives in a house raised 13 feet in the air.
Billiot is Naquin’s brother in law. He’s in his 80s and has lived on the island his whole life. I ask him what he’ll do if the island shrinks any more.
“That’s going to be rough. But, as long as I can stay, I’ll stay. I was born and raised on the island. As long as I can stay here I’m going to stay.”
Albert Naquin hasn’t given up. He thinks if he can get everyone to agree, the government will help the tribe get a big piece of land where they can all relocate as a group. He’s already thinking of names for the new town.
“We could say, Island Number Two, or Isle de Jean Charles New Beginning, or something like that. But I think we just name it Isle de Jean Charles 2. I think that has a good sound to it.”
In short, Naquin is trying to figure out how to keep the idea of Isle de Jean Charles alive, even when the island itself no longer exists.
It’s a challenge many Louisiana communities could soon face.
For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.