As This Town Slips Into Sea, a $48 Million Rescue Runs Into Obstacles
There was a fight coming and everyone knew it, so the reverend asked his guests to start with a prayer.
“Dear Lord, here we gather to consider ways and means that we might be relocated,” began Roch Naquin, who lives in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, a town slipping into the sea and the site of a radical federal policy experiment. A few dozen residents had gathered Saturday under Naquin’s stilted house to hear state officials describe three locations for the new community, and to choose their favorite.
“Open our hearts and our minds—to hear, to understand and to respond,” said Naquin. “Amen,” said the neighbors.
It took about 30 minutes for the shouting to start.
“Why is it going to take so long to buy the land?” demanded one woman. “Will you pull the money?” asked another. “Crooks!” one man said, to nobody in particular.
Last year, Isle de Jean Charles became the first U.S. town to get government money to move because of global warming. Eighteen months later, what started as a model has become a warning. Even as the federal government rewrites climate policy, the greatest challenge to the project may nonetheless be the people it's meant to help.
Mathew Sanders, head of the resilience program at Louisiana's Office of Community Development and the project’s chief, said that Isle de Jean Charles will demonstrate the viability of such efforts. “We're going to find out the answer to that question, one way or another,” he said.
Failure would be all the more striking for the stakes involved. President Barack Obama's administration awarded Louisiana $48 million to move fewer than 40 families, most of them members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe; the state said it wants to generate “a radical rethinking of the nation's coastal land use and development patterns.”
But President Donald Trump has begun reversing Obama’s efforts to curb emissions, including leaving the Paris climate accord. His administration has told agencies to stop factoring climate change into decisions and targeted a program to help Indian tribes adapt to extreme weather.
Those shifts reflect the administration's refusal to acknowledge scientific consensus. Trump’s head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, told coal executives last week that he would start a “red team-blue team” exercise to challenge the very notion that greenhouse gases are warming the planet.
Trump’s actions are likely to increase pressure on coastal communities to consider whether, and how, to pull back from the water.
“This is the fate of cities throughout the U.S., as well as the world, and we’ve got to figure it out,” said Robin Bronen, a University of Alaska researcher who has worked with native communities seeking similar government-funded relocations.
The Saturday meeting revealed three crucial fault lines. The first was definitional: Who is part of a community?
In a place ravaged by decades of severe weather, that question is anything but abstract. Isle de Jean Charles is a two-hour drive southwest of New Orleans, along coastal wetlands disappearing faster than any place in the country, and it has been shrinking not just in acres but in population. Yet the state defined residents only as those who lived on the island when Hurricane Isaac struck in 2012.
The meeting was attended by current and former residents, and tension grew as state employees distributed ballots for a new site—but only to people who attested that they lived on the island since Isaac.
Chantelle Comardelle’s parents left in 1986, after Hurricane Juan flooded their trailer. She said she was hospitalized with asthma, and doctors advised her parents to move. “I did not leave by choice,” she said.
“Why can't I get a preference on a site?” asked Comardelle, now the 35-year-old secretary of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribal council.
Ray Hendon, who left before Isaac, said he couldn’t afford to stay: The sole road is often impassable after heavy rain, which kept him from his job. “I had to move,” he said.
“We can't afford to move,” shot back Amy Handon, whose last name is a variation on a common local theme.
“Everybody here is gonna show everybody else respect,” Sanders insisted. The warning had no obvious effect.
The debate subsided only when the focus shifted to an even more contentious question: What would the state do with the island?
Some residents said they believe Louisiana wants to turn the island into a resort. “That's what we heard—after everybody moves, the state is going to take it over,” said Comardelle's father, Wenceslaus Billiot Jr.
That fear was voiced repeatedly Saturday. Sanders and his boss, Pat Forbes, who runs the Office of Community Development, seemed unsure how to dispel it.
“We have said over and over again, you are going to get to keep the land that’s here,’ said Forbes. “The state has absolutely no interest in owning the island.”
The third fear was the most fundamental: How could residents be sure that their new home would really be better? Would they like living there?
Thirty-five miles north and half a world away, Sanders and his team selected as the candidates three sugarcane fields nestled among highways, oil and gas facilities and residential subdivisions.
The day before the meeting, Jacob Giardina, a local developer who owns a 50 percent stake in two of the properties, showed a visiting reporter around. Each tract had long rows of cane, punctuated by drainage canals and patches of trees along their edges.
“It’s some of the highest land that’s left in the area,” Giardina said, though sections still flood occasionally. The third property, owned by a New Orleans lawyer and her family, was even lower, with parts as little as two feet above sea level.
The state had faced a dilemma. Build too close to Isle de Jean Charles, and residents would remain exposed. Build too far north, and fewer would move. Compromise meant a relatively flood-prone site that could nonetheless cost $30 million.
Albert Naquin, who is chief of the tribe and lives off the island, brought a photograph of one site after a rainstorm. Water filled the fields. “I just wanted to let you all know,” he said.
Edison Dardar said the locations were too far away, and he would prefer that Sanders just give him a million dollars. Sanders demurred. Somebody in the crowd gamely suggested half a million.
It was midday now, and the temperature had reached 91 degrees; attention was dwindling. Residents had begun talking to each other, rehashing disputes. Forbes took the microphone.
“This is a great turnout,” he said. “I’m so thrilled so many people came, and thanks for coming and participating. This is important.”
By that point, nobody seemed to be listening.