Gulf of Mexico
DJ's One Stop, the Plaquemines Parish Courthouse and the Post Office sit near the banks of the Mississippi River in Pointe a la Hache on Wednesday. Residents of the tiny, mostly African American community, buffeted by high insurance premiums and other spiraling costs, fear its days could be numbered. STAFF PHOTO BY SOPHIA GERMER

LA - Down the Mississippi, a historic Black town fears the end. It's a warning for coastal Louisiana.

Louisiana’s battle against land loss and sea-level rise has led to alarm over which parts of the state could actually vanish, and when. But the end for some communities may come long before the land beneath them disappears.

This is the second story in "Louisiana 2050," an occasional series examining the uncertain future of our coast.

The house where Chadwick Encalade lives, far down the Mississippi River, in a community older than the United States, is more than 20 feet in the air. Hobbled by bad knees, he struggles to climb up and down the steps.

His homeowners’ insurance has risen to around $800 — per month. People in his ZIP code are facing the steepest flood insurance increases in the nation: a projected average of nearly 1,100%.

The ferry crossing the river hasn’t run in months, and hurricanes have hit the area hard over recent decades. He has an elevator to help him and his wife get in and out of the house, but it’s not working, and Encalade can’t find a contractor willing to drive down to fix it.

He worries climate change will mean stronger storms and further troubles.

“We can clearly see the effects of it,” said Encalade, 56, who grew up across the street from his current home in the tiny, mostly African American community of Pointe a la Hache, squeezed along a narrow strip between the snaking Mississippi River and disappearing marsh.

The Marine Corps veteran, his white beard like a well-kept hedgerow, giving him the look of a sage, adds: “I worry about it. If anything happens, I probably wouldn’t rebuild the house the way that I have now.”

Louisiana’s battle against land loss and sea-level rise has led to alarm over which parts of the state could actually vanish, and when. But the end for some communities may come long before the land beneath them disappears.

Life may just become too hard and expensive to justify staying. It is already happening in some places along the coast.

'All my memories are there'

Pointe a la Hache, whose history dates back to at least the first half of the 18th century, is a shadow of what it once was, with a population of just 183 people. Located near the end of the road on the mighty river’s east bank, it is still technically the Plaquemines Parish seat, underscoring its former importance. But the community has faced a long list of human-caused and natural calamities over the last century, and signs that its days are numbered are everywhere.

Other parts of the coast are in similar situations. Take Cameron Parish, in Louisiana’s southwest. After repeated battering by hurricanes, its already sparse population has dropped by nearly half in two decades, to around 5,600. It is also among the coastal areas most threatened by erosion.

The numbers are telling elsewhere, too. Census estimates in 2022 showed three Louisiana parishes among the top five counties nationwide with the biggest percentage drops in population: Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist and Terrebonne. Much of it was attributable to Hurricane Ida the previous year.

While there has been discussion about how to deal with vulnerable communities, including whether to move them, the more likely scenario may be that they simply wither and die on their own.

In some areas, industry could take the place of people. Both Cameron and Plaquemines have pursued major liquefied natural gas plants, which are eligible for large tax breaks. In Cameron, parts of the coast previously known for fishing have been transformed into giant warrens of pipes and holding tanks to export energy.

The same natural gas contributes to climate change, which exacerbates the sea-level rise threatening Louisiana’s coast. At the same time, the plants — along with the investment and jobs they represent — provide local officials with an argument for why the nation should invest in protecting such vulnerable locations.

Outdoor tourism has also been attempted — and in some cases illustrates population shifts. The Pecan Island School along the coast in Vermilion Parish southwest of Lafayette was closed after 2005’s Hurricane Rita and has been transformed into a hunting lodge.

Read more.