Editor’s opinion: The pioneers of Isle de Jean Charles
For a glimpse into the future of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, keep an eye on the effort underway to relocate residents of Isle de Jean Charles.
The Los Angeles Times is among the latest to chronicle the effort to help residents of the eroding, flood-prone island off southeastern Terrebonne move to a new home about 40 miles north in Schriever. The story, which ran Saturday on the front page of The Courier and Daily Comet, reveals little new about the long-running endeavor. But it does a great job pulling together the disparate pieces of a long-running saga into a coherent look at the big picture.
A $48 million federal grant aims to create a community where the island’s mostly poor, Native American residents can live together in a way that preserves their cultural heritage. But that path remains fraught with questions and controversy, including debate over who gets to live in the new community and resistance from some Native Americans who feel betrayed that the new homes are not being reserved solely for their tribe.
The world is watching, and CityLab, an online journal followed by community planners and others involved in such issues, explains why.
“This is a test run of sorts, a first-of-its-kind program that aims to create guiding principles for future resettlements,” the website noted in a story last year. “What makes the project unique is that it doesn’t just aim to resettle individuals. Its goal is to resettle the entire community together, as a whole, by constructing a brand-new town and filling it with the displaced occupants and culture of Isle de Jean Charles.”
Anyone who has followed the island’s plight knows how emotional and complex this has been for everyone involved, especially the Native Americans who have called the island home for generations. However monumental, this is just the beginning. At most, the project will move a few hundred current and former residents, possibly a few others, to a new home.
If an effort of that scope is so difficult, imagine what will happen as the Gulf of Mexico continues to encroach on cities like Houma and Thibodaux, along with the rest of Louisiana’s coastal population.
The state coastal master plan’s most optimistic projections put the Gulf up against south Lafourche’s ring levee and Terrebonne’s Morganza levees within 50 years, raising questions about the systems’ ability to protect against flooding or withstand hurricanes. Floods during major storms would put 1-6 feet of water in and around Houma, Raceland and Larose.
The worst-case scenario shows the levees could be overtopped by normal tides and significantly compromised by storm surges. The master plan predicts major land loss up to a few miles south of Houma and Larose. Port Fourchon, a service hub for most of the Gulf of Mexico oilfield, and Grand Isle and other barrier islands could be lost completely.
Proposals in the master plan would offer unspecified financial aid to help owners of homes at the greatest risk either add flood-proofing, elevate or accept a voluntary buyout and move to higher ground. The plan says 8,200 homes in Terrebonne and Lafourche would qualify for such actions, but it will be up to parishes to set up a process for deciding which specific buildings would be targeted.
State officials and residents have discussed the issue at public hearings and elsewhere for at least two or three years, but so far, no one has pushed such buyouts forward. And the longer state and parish officials and the community at-large wait, the more the coast erodes, the land underneath us sinks and the Gulf advances north.
For Isle de Jean Charles residents, these issues are the present -- not the future. In that respect, they are pioneers for the rest of us.
Isle de Jean Charles Tribe Turns Down Funds to Relocate First US 'Climate Refugees’ as Louisiana Buys Land Anyway By Julie Dermansky • Friday, January 11, 2019