Wenceslaus Billiot, an 88-year-old native of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, remembers growing up on a much different island than the two-mile sliver of his ancestral home that remains today.
“When I was a kid I used to do trapping in the back,” he said, gesturing towards the back of the small, one-story house that stands elevated on stilts to escape the floods that roll in from the bayou after nearly every storm. “You could walk for a long time. Now, nothing but water.”
The back balcony overlooks a vast expanse of water leading to Terrebonne Bay and, further, the Gulf of Mexico – that now lies in his backyard.
Billiot and his equally sprightly 91-year-old wife, Denecia Naquin, are among the last remaining residents of this island, which has lost 98% of its land and most of its population to coastal erosion and rising sea levels since 1955. The population, which peaked at around 400, is now down to around 85…
As in other areas of southern Louisiana, the loss of once-vast tracts of marshland and trees has left the island exposed to hurricanes and frequent flooding has stripped the land, made farming impossible and forced residents into an annual ritual of rebuilding.
The couple, like nearly everyone on the island, belong to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, and can trace their roots to the early 1800s when Native Americans fleeing forced relocation under the Indian Removal Act first settled the island. The tribe was quickly intertwined with the local French Cajun influence, which can still be heard in the lilting accent of Billiot and Naquin’s generation…
Now, with new federal funding, the Isle de Jean Charles tribe will be part of the first program in the lower 48 states to address an entire community’s resettlement needs due to climate change and increased natural disasters.
In January the tribe was awarded $52m for resettlement from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as part of its $1bn Natural Disaster Resiliency Competition. The money will fund a new sustainably designed development to provide housing to up to 400 tribe members on a new plot inland. Planning is in the early stages, but officials hope to choose a site likely somewhere north of Houma, the closest city, later this year.
The project will be watched closely as a testing ground for the resettlement of whole communities – culturally sensitive ones, in particular – as the effects of climate change begin to be felt more acutely along the coasts of North America and indigenous communities in Alaska face similar prospects of disappearing land…
Louisiana has one of the fastest rates of land loss in the country, due to the twin problems of land loss and sea level rise. Since the 1930s, the state has lost nearly 2,000 square miles of land, equivalent to roughly one football field every 45 minutes.
“The land is sinking for a variety of reasons,” said Alex Kolker, a professor of earth sciences at Tulane University. Natural land loss has been compounded by the thousands of canals dredged by oil and gas companies drilling in the area and levees built along the Mississippi River have stopped the natural process of sediment that would otherwise replenish coastal land. “Climate change is becoming a big issue,” he said, and the increasing rate of sea level rise could soon overtake the rate of land loss, which has historically been greater.
In the future, a lot of the rest of the world could look like what Louisiana looks like now, Kolker added.
RTFA. Please. Lots of detail about the lives of ordinary people disrupted by climate change. The wealthy, even the upper middle class already afford the mobility characteristic of much of American population. The keyword being “afford”. They can pick up and move.
For the rest, in a political culture infected with science-deniers for the usual reasons, disaster like this is something that rolls inevitably towards destruction of your community and its culture.