The Story Of A Tribe That Tried To Escape The Rising Sea

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As a writer for CleanTechnica, I get a lot of stories that come across my desk. More often than not, I delete them without further thought. A feature article from the Times-Picayune/ New Orleans Advocate, though, definitely caught my attention by personalizing the climate crisis, moving an abstraction like the rising sea level to a whole new level of meaning-making.

To walk alongside a native islander and see the ever-softening, ever-shrinking land around their home is a story that deserves a close read. In doing so, we recognize that broad proclamations about climate change-spurred relocation and funding are sometimes little more than a pleasant mist of meaning without substance.

A widow. A grocery worker. A member of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. Her name is Theresa “Betty” Billiot. Born in 1957, Betty remembers the area around her home as filled with a vista of cattle grazing in pastures, cotton fields, and wild prairie dotted with duck ponds.

Now she opens the same door and sees nothing but the rising sea.

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The Legacy of Big Oil & the Rising Sea

Native Americans settled the 35-mile Isle de Jean Charles in the early 1800s after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. Some Choctaw fled to the wilderness of swamps in south Terrebonne, 45 miles southwest of New Orleans. The island then was a ridge surrounded by marsh and coastal prairie.

In 1952, the first oil derrick rose above Isle de Jean Charles, a sign some residents hoped would signal prosperity. But tribal members recall companies used intimidation and coercion to get land access and oil rights from residents who couldn’t speak or read enough English to understand what they were signing away. That was when residents noticed the island starting to unravel.

“They put in these canals, and they cut the island in two or three, and that brought in the salt water,” said Edison Dardar, a tribal council member and retired oyster harvester. “That messed up the whole thing.”

Oil and gas companies have been cutting through the coastal marshes around Isle de Jean Charles for decades. Canals dug for oil and gas infrastructure, including wells and pipelines, have allowed saltwater and storm surges to penetrate deep into the wetlands, hastening the rates of erosion and subsidence that have robbed the island of 98% of its landmass since 1955.

The canals have allowed the rising sea to penetrate inland wetlands, killing trees and grasses that held the soil in place. Storm surges blasted through this network of watery highways, causing rapid erosion and flooding miles from the coast.

Such canals are now considered a primary cause of Louisiana’s land-loss crisis, along with rising seas, storms, and the levees that straitjacket the Mississippi’s land restoring sediment. Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land every 100 minutes.

The island again drew outside interest when oil companies began slicing canals through the surrounding marsh. Oil extraction also accelerated subsidence, the speed at which Louisiana’s land compacts, by a factor of two or three. While the rising sea builds, the land around oil wells is sinking faster.

The local levee district built a 6-foot-tall ring levee around the island. It was high enough to keep out tides but not to protect against minor hurricanes. The levee also sealed off the island’s bayou. Once crowded with fishing boats and teeming with crabs and fish, it stagnated into a weedy ditch.

Now the island has less than 1 square mile of land, and that’s not really arable anymore. The island’s population, mostly French-speaking American Indians and their descendants, has fallen from 325 to just a dozen in 20 years.

Hurricanes, coastal erosion, and the rising sea made the island almost unrecognizable to Billiott when she returned to her family home in 2013 to care for her elderly mother, described as “a stoic woman” whose health problems were exacerbated by struggling with murky floodwaters.

The Choctaw’s Attempt to Gain Ground & Legal Recognition

After a 14-year effort by the Chocktaw tribe to resettle members on higher, safer ground, a $48 million grant seemed to offer the first federally funded relocation of a community threatened by climate change. The grant would allow Billiot and her mother to move to a brand new house 40 miles inland in a few years.

Initially, the effort seemed as if it would be an example for displacements across the globe, as the UN expects up to 200 million people over the next 30 years by a rapidly warming planet.

“This is not just an issue in distant, poor countries,” Elizabeth Ferris, a climate migration researcher at Georgetown University, explained. “It’s happening in the US right now.” She noted relocation efforts in Alaska, New Hampshire, Washington, and New Jersey. “They’re all struggling to get this right.”

The relocation grant process, however, wasn’t close to expectations. The tribe lacks federal recognition and couldn’t apply for the grant on its own. “We were supposed to be a model for others, but the state took it over and screwed it all up. This isn’t our dream come true,” Chief Albert Naquin related.

Once the state Office of Community Development had the money, their relationship with the tribe changed, according to The Advocate. The agency abandoned the tribe’s vision and restarted an already lengthy development process, hiring its own planners and architects, and cutting the tribe’s chief and council out of decision making.

The state both narrowed resettlement eligibility, instituting financial and residency requirements, and broadened it, with plans to eventually open the resettlement site to people from other parts of the coast. The process relied mostly on written documents, which was a challenge for the Jean Charles tribe, partly because the tribe settled in a remote area to avoid detection by White authorities.

In 2009, the tribe teamed up with the Lowlander Center, a Terrebonne nonprofit that helps coastal communities adapt to environmental changes, and began crafting a more detailed proposal. Nearly 190 professionals “from pavement experts to hydrologists” helped, often working pro bono, said Kristina Peterson, a Lowlander founder and former University of New Orleans environmental hazards researcher.

“We took all the values of the tribe and put them into a place,” she said. “It was exceedingly cutting-edge.”

The 120-home plan emphasized a tribal center with space for a children’s day care, meals for the elderly and tribal gatherings. Its initial purpose, though, would be as a storm shelter.

Then the unthinkable happened.

In an email to tribal members, Mathew Sanders, the project’s manager, wrote that he could not “use these federal grant dollars with the explicit purpose of benefiting your tribe.” Doing so, Sanders said, would be discriminatory. Tribal members were no longer invited to join agency staff as they presented the project at conferences, including some of the world’s largest gatherings of scientists and civic planners.

By mid-2017, agency staff began quietly saying what was becoming obvious: They no longer saw the project as a tribal resettlement.

With the tribe marginalized, the state felt free to expand the use of the new site.

And although the state came to deem the island unsafe and forbid participants from living on or improving their properties, it did spend millions fortifying the access road and adding parking, docks, and recreational fishing amenities. That spurred interest from developers, who envisioned new cabins for hunters and anglers alongside the wrecked homes of longtime residents.

There were no houses on The New Isle when Billiot visited in April, 2021, but the state had managed to clear the land, install some utilities and the beginnings of a road, and dug pits for ponds.

Today, 6 years after the grant award, the resettlement site called The New Isle has only 12 homes at the 515-acre site. The state offered a range of reasons for the slow progress: permitting issues and environmental reviews, the COVID-19 pandemic, materials shortages, and hurricanes.

Back on Isle de Jean Charles, mostly old men who’d fished in their primes now spend their days puttering around their properties, sometimes casting a net for a shrimp dinner. One fisher still plans to move to New Isle.

The rest aren’t budging.

If you would like to read the fascinating expose in its entirety and view the striking photographs by Ted Jackson, I recommend you click through to the Times-Picayune/ New Orleans Advocate original story.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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