The First U.S. Climate Refugees

The unluckiest town in America has become a desperate experiment in adaptation.

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana.

Photographer: Christopher Flavelle/Bloomberg

Early one morning at the beginning of March, two black Chevy Suburbans filled with federal and state development officials left New Orleans for Louisiana's coast. Almost two hours later, they turned onto Island Road, a low spit of asphalt nearly three miles long with water on either side. At the other end was Isle de Jean Charles, a community of 25 or so families that is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. The officials had a plan to save the town: by moving it someplace else.

Global warming presents governments the world over with two problems. One is to slow the pace of climate change. The other is to adapt to what humans have already wrought, either by protecting buildings and infrastructure from rising tides and extreme weather, or by moving people out of harm's way. The second part is harder -- so hard, in fact, that the U.S. government has never done it. At least not quite like this.

QuickTake Climate Change

In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said it would give Louisiana $48 million to resettle Isle de Jean Charles. The state won the money by promising not just to move its people, who are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, but to do it in a way that creates a model that other towns and cities might share. (Most pressing are several communities in Alaska, which face similar challenges.)

"We have never done anything at this scale," said Marion McFadden, the department's deputy assistant secretary for grants. She said the project, still in the planning phase, is an attempt to learn how to explain "the value of relocating" to a community while involving its members in "designing their own new home or homeland."

In other words, how do you persuade people to abandon their town in an orderly fashion, before it becomes uninhabitable? How do you ensure their new home is one they're satisfied with, rather than a glorified refugee camp? And how do you safeguard against central planning gone berserk?

If it works, the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles will show that government-sponsored climate migration is viable, at least on a small scale. If it fails -- if the new community never gets finished, if residents refuse to move, if the project runs far over budget -- the story of the island will be a cautionary one, demonstrating the political, financial and psychological limits of our ability to adapt to global warming.   

Beneath those criteria is one of the most vexing dilemmas in the climate-change debate: How should society choose which communities get protected and which must move? Isle de Jean Charles shows how little progress the government has made in answering that question.

The 2 Percenters

“Town” isn't quite the right word for Isle de Jean Charles. The community consists of a few dozen houses, all on stilts, arrayed along the road. There are a few cabins, used by people who come to the island to fish. Beyond the houses, low scrubs give way to water, far closer than it used to be.

The visiting officials, many of them seeing the town for the first time, stopped first at the marina, which was closed. The next stop was to speak with the town's chief, Albert Naquin, in front of his sister's house.

As the visitors clambered out of the Suburbans, clouds of biting gnats descended, leaving button-sized welts that lasted days. One official asked what people on the island did for work (Naquin said most were retired); another inquired how people felt about the move ("It's for our kids”).

The chief gamely offered to buy everyone lunch, prompting a chorus of polite refusals. The officials returned to their vehicles. The entire tour had lasted perhaps half an hour. Since 1955, the island has lost 98 percent of its land; there simply wasn’t much of it left to see.  

Chief Albert Naquin. "This hurricane season might be the one that's going to wipe them out." Photographer: Christopher Flavelle/Bloomberg

Afterward Naquin invited me to his red brick house in Pointe-aux-Chenes, the closest town on the mainland. Sitting on a covered porch, Naquin, a barrel-chested Army veteran with a relaxed manner, explained how Isle de Jean Charles owes its existence to an earlier government resettlement program.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which called for relocating Native Americans west of the Mississippi River. The first tribe to be moved was the Choctaw -- including Naquin's great-great-grandmother, who escaped relocation by fleeing to the wetlands, settling the land that is now the town.

Starting in the 1930s, oil and gas exploration sparked an economic boom, bringing jobs and a canal. "When the pipeline canal first started, we thought that was god-sent," Naquin told me. But extraction instead helped pull the island underwater, as land sank into the underground cavities where the oil and gas used to be. The canals carried salty water into the freshwater marsh, killing trees and accelerating erosion.

I asked Naquin how many people he expects to move to the new community. He answered with a metaphor about a dog and her puppies. Trying to convince all the puppies to move at once is hopeless. But once the mother walks away, the pups get scared and run after her.   

"As chief, you have to see what's best," Naquin told me. "This hurricane season might be the one that's going to wipe them out."

A sign near the town's entrance. Not everyone is ready to move. Photographer: Christopher Flavelle/Bloomberg

A Legacy of Failure

The history of government-sponsored resettlement isn't a happy one.

In the U.S., the clearest antecedent to what HUD is attempting may have been during the Great Depression. In 1935, after drought and dust storms had ruined the wheat crop in much of the Great Plains, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Resettlement Administration to move farmers off lands the government believed could no longer sustain them. The agency bought farms that had suffered the worst erosion; many became National Grasslands.

A family of migrant workers from Oklahoma, by the roadside in Blythe, California, 1936. Photographer: Dorothea Lange/Getty Images

The people who had lived on those lands fared less well. Some were moved to government-owned planned farms until Congress objected, fearful that it carried the whiff of socialism. The agency then began building camps in California, which brought pushback from those who resented their destitute new neighbors. The agency was absorbed into the Department of Agriculture in 1937.

The global experience isn't much more encouraging. In her book "Climate Change, Forced Migration, and International Law," Australian law professor Jane McAdam cited research showing "at least 86 relocations of whole communities within the Pacific," both during the colonial period and more recently, often because of environmental pressure. "A dominant feeling among those who have been relocated is 'discontent,' often over generations."

And You Thought Your Move Was Hard

The mistakes of failed resettlement efforts aren't lost on Kristina Peterson. As director of the Houma, Louisiana-based nonprofit Lowlander Center, Peterson, a self-described "grassroots planner," helped design a strategy to avoid those mistakes in Isle de Jean Charles. "Without the full engagement of the community's residents," as well as the people who would become their new neighbors, she wrote with a colleague last year, "the resettlement will fail."

It wouldn't be the first time. In 2002, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided on the boundaries of a new levee system for the area -- a decision made independently of the state -- it concluded that extending the levee around Isle de Jean Charles wasn't worth the expense. The Corps offered to help the residents move, but only if everyone agreed. They didn't.

The one road to the island. Hurricanes washed it out in 2008; the road wasn't repaired until 2011. Photographer: Christopher Flavelle/Bloomberg

In 2009, after hurricanes Gustav and Ike left Island Road impassable, the parish offered to help the islanders move to the town of Bourg, 20 minutes north. This time, it was the residents of Bourg who resisted. "They move them Indians in, it's gonna devalue our property," Naquin recalled hearing outside a council meeting.

Then, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated the Eastern Seaboard. Congress responded by providing money for easing the damage of future storms. "The argument was, it could be you next," McFadden told me. "We had a billion dollars we could target to not just recovery, but resilient recovery. It was a one-time opportunity for us."

HUD used the money to fund "innovative resilience projects to better prepare communities for future storms." Louisiana applied, calling the residents of Isle de Jean Charles "ideally positioned to develop and test resettlement adaptive methodologies because their need to resettle has become urgent."

Sitting at her kitchen table, Peterson listed the features that would make the islanders' new home one they would want to live in: Communal space. Geothermal energy. A day care and health clinic. A FEMA-approved evacuation shelter. A recreation area. Sustainable agriculture. A treebreak around the community. A guesthouse for academics and journalists. 

Peterson conceded it would be expensive. "You have to do something really well in order to be able to attract the sort of money you need to be able to do it," she said. In other words, the new community has to be enticing enough to draw most of the residents off Isle de Jean Charles, or future efforts won't get funding.

But too much spending also could doom future projects. "If we want to have a model that's replicable, we've got to have a model that's affordable," said Pat Forbes, director of Louisiana's Office of Community Development.

There are other questions about the resettlement that still have to be answered, including where it will be built and the time to completion. Meanwhile, the number of towns that may want to follow Isle de Jean Charles' example will only grow. Peterson took out a U.S. Geological Survey map. Red marked projected land loss in coastal Louisiana by 2050; she estimated some 100 communities were in that zone. That could be just the start. McFadden, the HUD official, noted that 5 percent of the U.S. population lives in a flood plain.

An image from Louisiana's 2012 Coastal Master Plan. Areas in red are projected to become underwater during the next 50 years. Source: Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority

"All of these communities are going to have to move at some point," Peterson said. "What are you going to do?"

Who Decides?

Isle de Jean Charles may show how to resettle a community imperiled by climate change. It won't answer a question that's probably more important: How should the government decide who has to move?

The arm of government with the most responsibility for that question is the Army Corps of Engineers, whose decision to leave the island outside its new levee marked the eventual end of the community. Yet it's also the arm with the least accountability. State and HUD officials told me they have no ability to influence what the Corps decides.

Moreover, the Corps’ approach to deciding which community to protect ignores the social cost of losing a town. "You're looking at an intrinsic value to the people that are there," Ricky Boyett, a Corps spokesman, told me. "We're not looking at that. What we're looking at is, we're doing it through a mathematical formula for calculating the damage."

The Corps' refusal to consider any value that can't be quantified has a certain Spock-like appeal, but responding to climate change requires a more nuanced accounting. Suppose two towns of equal size require flood protection but there's only enough money to save one. Choosing the town with higher property values is a rational option. But it might not be a just one.

The opposite of a mathematical formula is for governments to help based on political influence alone. And McFadden, when asked if Isle de Jean Charles creates a precedent for other towns in jeopardy, said there's not enough money for everyone.

As the number of Americans at risk from climate change increases, so will the need for a consistent and transparent standard for deciding which towns get protected, which get moved, and which are left to fend for themselves. Creating that standard is beyond the scope of any one agency; it will require the attention of Congress and, ultimately, voters. The alternatives are arbitrariness, rationing, or an especially existential brand of political favoritism.

On one of my visits to Isle de Jean Charles, a man named Chris Brunet invited me up to the deck of his house, maybe 12 feet above ground. We were just high enough to catch the sun reflecting off the long stretch of water beyond the island's edge. He said he would miss the view.

Worse, the forces making the island uninhabitable -- global warming, oil and gas exploration, the path of federal levees -- were beyond his control. "That can't be held against no one in this community," Brunet said. "I didn't cause all of this." 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Christopher Flavelle at

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    Brooke Sample at

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