Greenwire: ‘Broken village’ in La. bayou seeks higher ground

By Abby Kessler, E&E reporter — As the Isle de Jean Charles in southern Louisiana sinks slowly into the Gulf of Mexico, a group of Native Americans who have inhabited the island for hundreds of years are planning to move.

The island once spanned 5 miles wide by 10 miles long. Now it’s only a quarter-mile wide and 2 miles long, a result of sea-level rise and coastal erosion accelerated in the last century by levee construction and oil development.

Major hurricanes like Rita, Lili, Katrina and Ike in the last 15 years also have leveled infrastructure, forcing the once-tight-knit community to cut its losses in search of drier land.

“Everyone has heard of a broken family, and that’s our village. We are a broken village,” said Chief Albert Naquin of the Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians.

With the assistance of a $48 million grant awarded by the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), a collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians has begun the process of starting anew — 30 miles inland.

“This money is going to help put this family back together again,” Naquin said.

The NDRC grant was awarded to the tribe in partnership with the Lowlander Center, a nonprofit based in Louisiana that supports communities dealing with coastal land loss and will help implement resettlement efforts.

“Houses on the Isle de Jean Charles that once had extensive land behind them now have nothing left,” said Shirley Laska, a sociology professor at the University of New Orleans and a member of the Lowlander Center. “Every time there is a storm, those houses get flooded. Then mold takes over and destroys everything.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, about 300 tribal members lived on the island. Today, Naquin said, around 80 members remain.

“I can’t see any future left on the island, except what is left now,” Naquin said. “It’s just going to get worse and worse.”

Naquin said that while it has been “horrible” to watch his tribe disperse, he hopes the resettled community will become a model for cultural resilience and climate change mitigation in the future.

“This $48 million grant will allow the state to help them resettle their entire community to a safer place with a minimum of disruption to livelihoods and lifestyles,” Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said in a statement. “Together, we’ll be creating a model for resettlement of endangered coastal communities throughout the United States.”

A final resettlement site has not been selected. But a dozen potential areas are pending approval from government officials, Laska said.

Naquin said the tribe is looking for about 500 acres of land to build more than 100 homes, a community center, a health care clinic, a gym, a food market and powwow grounds.

The tribe estimates it will cost more than $100 million to resettle. It will likely seek additional funding through grants.

The NDRC grant is part of a $1 billion competition, funded through private philanthropy with the goal of involving progressive world thinkers in coming up with solutions for rebuilding communities in areas destroyed by natural disasters.

“This money is going to help put this family back together again. Put this village back together where we will be able to see each other,” Naquin said.

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