America’s first climate change refugees are preparing to leave an island that will disappear
ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, Louisiana — America comes to an end here. Connected to the marshes and moss-laced bayous of southern Louisiana by two miles of narrow causeway, waters lapping high on each side, Isle de Jean Charles takes you as far into the Gulf of Mexico as you can go without falling in. But the dolour in the salt air is not just about loneliness and separation. It's about impending demise.
Don't call it a death sentence - the intention is the opposite - but state officials in late March made the announcement that had been a long time coming. Some on the island, nearly all members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian tribe, met it with relief; others with hostility.
Marking the kick-off of what will be the first climate resettlement of its kind in the entire United States, land had been chosen an hour's drive to the north for a whole new town to be thrown up. No one will force them exactly, but the intention is clear: to evacuate those still living on the island to the new site, where at present nothing but sugar cane stands, before it is too late.
When that will be depends on whom you ask. But no one disputes that the island is sinking, thanks to a combination of subsidence and rising sea levels. Where there were 22,000 acres in 1955 there are only 320 acres today. Climate change isn't helping, but the principal problem traces back to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 when the corps of engineers responded by building giant levees to constrain the river. The result was stopping the flow of sediment into its delta, which once gave the state's barrier islands the material to rebuild as fast as they eroded.
The vanishing of Isle de Jean Charles into the waves of the gulf might take another decade or even five. On the other hand, one more big storm could finally end its viability for human occupation for good, flooding homes beyond repair or cutting through the connecting road.
"The next hurricane could force all of them, at that point, to move," Thomas Dardar notes, navigating his truck along the causeway on Palm Sunday morning. The Chief of the United Houma Nation, another large Louisiana tribe, with several close relatives on the island, has been deeply involved in helping to forge the resettlement plan with the state. He is therefore anxious for it to succeed. But he is equally aware of the multiple hurdles it still faces.
Success matters because at least in the eyes of Chief Thomas, as well as Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development which must execute the resettlement, a blueprint is being drawn that one day will be followed by countless other communities confronted by climate extinction, maybe in Louisiana, which is losing coastal territory at the rate of one football field per hour, or elsewhere in the country. Or the world.
"It's really a test run," Mr Forbes concedes in an interview from his Baton Rouge office. While Americans may have been displaced by environmental change before, notably in Alaska, no single community has been relocated lock, stock and barrel like this. "We are trying to keep the community intact and ensure that it's economically and socially vibrant and viable. To our knowledge, it's unique. There are places around the world who are looking at a similar type of thing but nobody in the US has done this."
Which makes residents on Isle de Jean Charles canaries in the mineshaft. And if they are not opposed outright, they see problems and pitfalls everywhere, a couple of which emerged at the most recent of the monthly community meetings on the island, instituted by Mr Forbes to make sure their concerns are heard. For example: moving the quick is one thing, but what about the dead? What does the state propose doing about their ancestors beneath the island's overgrown cemetery? (There may be as many as 200 resting there, but one estimate puts the number at only 50.)
Then there is the matter of Theo Chaisson and the small marina he has run for 30 years at the island's tip. On our visit it bustled with pleasure-boaters and fisherfolk using the dock and slip. His family left for drier land in 1948, but his business is his livelihood. What will become of it if the island is abandoned? No one knows, and that leaves him unsettled and a little angry. He questions why the $48m (£34m) granted by Washington, specifically the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to pay for the evacuation hadn't instead been assigned to build better flood defences.
"I don't think it's necessary," Chaisson, 81, says of the resettlement plan. "This here will go," he adds, gesturing from the elevated deck at the back of his tackle shop to the dry land still remaining, "but not right now. It's good for another 25 years for sure, or better." He expects the state will eventually be forced to offer him cash to shut down, although nothing to that effect is settled yet. "I am not for sale," he says defiantly. "I'll tell them, 'No, no no'" - maybe. "With a lot of money, I might be interested. I might be interested."
Breaking off repeatedly to greet customers looking to buy bait, cold beers or new hooks for their lines, Chaisson argues people can make up their own minds whether to stay and brave the next hurricane or flee. "The ones that want to go, they left already," he reckons. "They've gone."
Some have. Scan the creaky wood-framed homes that line the single road on the island, many perched perilously high on 15-foot pilings, and several appear abandoned, doors and windows swung open. The fire station was shuttered long ago. There are only 45 adults and 12 children still living on Isle de Jean Charles, according to state officials. A year ago, there were 93 full-time residents. Some who left took up an offer made last November to move to interim housing in the city of Houma, further inland, while they wait for the new community to be built. But the exodus really began after Hurricane Katrina savaged the island back in 2005.
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