Federal relocation of Terrebonne Parish ‘climate refugees’ set to begin from vanishing Isle de Jean Charles

Published: Aug. 16, 2022 at 10:43 PM CDT
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ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. (WVUE) - Within the next couple of weeks, dozens of so-called ‘climate refugees’ in Terrebonne Parish will begin moving to new homes, 40 miles north of their disappearing homeland.

It is the first federally funded community relocation in the country brought on by rising sea levels along Louisiana’s vanishing coast.

Tattered homes sit in shambles as the Gulf of Mexico consumes the land. Isle de Jean Charles -- a slender island in Terrebonne parish -- is the ancestral homeland for some Native Americans. And though it’s rapidly disappearing, some refuse to leave.

Hurricanes have scarred the island, leaving houses abandoned and damaged in ways never imagined. Isle de Jean Charles once encompassed 22,000 acres of land. Now, longtime residents watch it wash away.

“Not in my lifetime, I didn’t think I would have to worry about dealing with having to be settled somewhere else or relocate,” said resident Chris Brunet.

Isle de Jean Charles, named for a Frenchman who did business with pirate Jean Lafitte, served as a refuge for Native Americans who were forced to move from higher ground. But that refuge now is but a sliver, reduced to 320 acres by storms, subsidence and coastal erosion.

“I have most of my stuff packed and ready to move,” said island native Rev. Roch Naquin.

On a typical summer day, water begins to cover the only road down to the isle. Although few people are left, 73-year-old Edison Dardar said he isn’t leaving.

“Not me,” he said. “They’d have to give me a million dollars.”

The island is considered to be one of the first communities in the country to succumb to rising sea levels. Living there, for many, has become unsustainable.

“I’ve gone as much as 13 days without mail, because the mail lady wouldn’t come down the road because she had to drive through salt water,” said resident Johnny Tamplet.

Over the last 70 years, the state of Louisiana says 95 percent of the isle’s land has disappeared. Naquin says problems began surfacing with Hurricane Hilda in the 1960s. He has raised his home three times since.

“Before that time, the island was high enough and safe enough that it really didn’t flood,” said Naquin.

Now, Naquin is one of 37 Isle de Jean Charles residents relocating to higher ground in northern Terrebonne Parish.

In 2016, the state was awarded federal funds to develop a new, 500-acre, $48 million community called New Isle.

“To our knowledge, yes, this is the first time that federal funds have been used to move a whole community like this out of harm’s way,” said Pat Forbes, with the Louisiana Office of Community Development.

Tamplet also is taking one of the new homes, though he will keep his old house on Isle de Jean Charles.

“It’s peaceful. When I wake up here in the morning, I decide what am I gonna do, eat breakfast and go fishing. What man wouldn’t like that?” Tamplet asked.

Though Tamplet is taking one of the new homes, he questions the cost of the relocation.

State officials said the New Isle community will attempt to replicate Isle de Jean Charles, with fishing areas, a community center and homes built to withstand 150 mph winds.

“When you do the first one, it’s going to cost more,” said Forbes.

The new homes are small but tidy, featuring outdoor sinks for cleaning fish, wheelchair ramps and screened patios. And although they are on higher ground, better protected from hurricanes, some say they wouldn’t be moving if it weren’t for a provision that allows them to keep their Isle de Jean Charles dwellings as secondary homes.

“If it included my house and property, losing this right here, forget it,” Brunet said.

But at 89 years old, Naquin says he’s ready to move. Only 26 of nearly 300 families remain, and Naquin questions those who stay.

“We live in a dangerous place that floods,” Naquin said. “And if you have an opportunity to move to higher ground, try and take advantage of it, before something terrible happens.”

While some tribe members are moving 40 miles north, others have decided to stay put, banking on a new levee.

Residents and the Terrebonne Levee District say the new levee around Point-Aux-Chene, just north of Isle de Jean Charles, is helping keep flood water out. And though wind damaged 90 percent of the isle’s homes during Ida, Annie Hutchinson said she and many of her friends aren’t moving.

“It’s home,” she said. “Where else can my kids go in the backyard and go fishing and hunting?”

The majority of those moving are Native Americans. The United Houma Nation has concerns about moving Native Americans from ancestral lands, to what basically is a suburban setting.

“It’s a community mental health issue, which needs to be addressed, because the community is grieving,” said Lanor Curole of the United Houma Nation.

Living on the edge of an encroaching gulf has always been challenging. But, for many, worth every minute.

Dardar says for him, it’s a no-brainer. He and three others will stay in a place his ancestors have inhabited for five generations, in spite of hurricanes and high water, because it’s...

“Home,” he said. “I was born and raised here. It’s a good place to live.”

And though no one can predict what the next hurricane might bring, the prognosis isn’t good for a community that continues fighting a losing battle against rising water, one of the most powerful forces on Earth.

State officials said the relocation of Isle de Jean Charles residents to New Isle could begin in the next week or two. Eventually, that new community is expected to be home to nearly 120 former residents of Isle de Jean Charles, as it continues to be threatened by the rising sea.

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