NEW ORLEANS — The effects of global warming can be seen and touched in Louisiana, where officials have begun buying higher ground to relocate an entire town in a bayou being swallowed by higher seas.
The Louisiana Office of Community Development announced Tuesday that it will spend $11.7 million on a 515-acre (208-hectare) tract of high ground to house about 80 residents of Isle de Jean Charles, an island that has lost 98 percent of its land area since 1955 as sea levels rise due to climate change. Most are Native Americans, members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians and the United Houma Nation.
Groundbreaking is expected next year at the resettlement project near Schriever in northern Terrebonne Parish — the culmination of many years of planning for people who long survived in isolation along Lousiana’s swampy coast.
Some in Isle de Jean Charles are concerned that 2019 may be too long a wait for homes to be built at the location, however.
“We’re going to have to go through another hurricane season, maybe two,” Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians told NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune in December. “That makes us very, very edgy.”
Naquin did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment from The Associated Press. Messages left for tribal council members of the United Houma Nation, which also is affected by the project, were not immediately returned.
Isle de Jean Charles has been the full-time home to the band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe for more than 170 years, since Native Americans were uprooted from better lands across the young United States during what became known as the Trail of Tears. Barred by law from buying land elsewhere, these families found swampland that the state considered uninhabitable and made it their home.
In 2016, Isle de Jean Charles became the first community in the U.S. to receive federal assistance for a large-scale retreat from the effects of climate change. About $48 million was allotted to purchase land, build homes and move the island’s remaining people.
Pat Forbes, who directs the state’s community development agency, said in a statement that a majority of the island’s residents prefer the Terrebonne Parish site for what will become their new home.
“This is not to say that they want to leave the island, but the island is, in effect, leaving them,” Forbes said.
The proposed resettlement is closer to stores, schools and health care and is less flood-prone than the island, which has been continually battered by hurricanes and tropical storms.
“Unfortunately, coastal Louisiana is experiencing subsidence, relative sea level rise and coastal land loss faster than anywhere in the country. Fortunately, we’re also on the leading edge of resilience-building approaches to adaptation, drawing on innovative science and technology right here in Louisiana,” Forbes said.
Louisiana hopes the resettlement will serve as a model for other coastal communities facing these same risks, but “we also know success depends on due consideration of the island’s history, as well as the needs of the residents,” said Mat Sanders, the department’s resilience policy and program administrator.
The state agency hosted four community meetings for current and former residents of Isle de Jean Charles to collaborate on new community’s design. The discussions included site preferences, budget considerations and off-island housing where residents can stay during the transition. A steering committee of residents and other stakeholders meets with the planning team each month to review the resettlement’s progress.