Monday, March 21, 2016

Louisiana's Vanishing Island:  The Climate 'Refugees' Resettling for $52M

‘It used to be all you could see was trees and woods,’ said Wenceslaus, father of deputy chief Boyo Billiot. (Photograph Credit: Charlie Varley for the Guardian) Click to Enlarge.
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.”

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.

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.

‘It used to be all you could see was trees and woods,’ said Wenceslaus, father of deputy chief Boyo Billiot.
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.

“If it passes a hurricane, it’s gonna wash everything away,” said Billiot.  “That’s why they want us to move.”  His skin is weathered from a life spent on the water, first as an oyster fishermen then as a tugboat captain.  The couple is clearly reticent to leave.  “We’ll stay here as long as we can,” added Denicia with a polite smile.

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.

Read more at Louisiana's Vanishing Island:  The Climate 'Refugees' Resettling for $52M

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