Louisianans Watches Native Land Sinking Into Sea

Southern tip of Louisiana cannot escape flooding, and families are leaving.

December 6, 2009, 1:21 PM

MONTEGUT, La., Dec. 6, 2009 — -- For 170 years, members of a tiny Native American tribe have lived and celebrated their traditions on a speck of land here off the Louisiana coast called Isle de Jean Charles.

They fished and they farmed, carving out an existence amid the bays and marshes.

But now the waters that have sustained them are threatening to overwhelm them.

"I don't think we're going to have any choice to leave because we're getting washed away by every storm that comes by," said Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha tribe. "We lose more and more land, and it keeps happening."

Surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the bayou on the other, Isle de Jean Charles sits at the southern tip of Louisiana's rapidly vanishing wetlands, an area that is 3- to 4-miles long and about a mile wide. The tribe has been living here since 1840.

But about a football field worth of land in the region is lost every half-hour to erosion, storms and to rising seas -- a relentless process that is expected to worsen with climate change.

Isle de Jean Charles has flooded five times in the last six years, transforming a once lush landscape into a barren disaster zone. The floodwaters have spread large amounts of salt across the tiny island, making it nearly impossible for much to grow here anymore.

Residents of Isle de Jean Charles have seen their lives and livelihoods literally wash away.

The road to their village floods so often now, only one lane is useable -- and it is often covered by water. The fire station was closed a few years ago, and the island's church was relocated. Now, only 25 families are left, with a "few dozen" people.

A controversial $900 million system of sea walls and levees proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers to save endangered communities along the Louisiana coast raised hopes here that the tribe could remain.

But the final design did not include Isle de Jean Charles because officials concluded it simply would cost too much to protect the relatively few families that are left.

Jaquetta Reid and her sister, Brenda Varret, are the fourth generation in their family to call the island home. They likely will be the last. They have left for good, moving across the road bridge to Point-Aux-Chenes in Louisiana.

Urged to Leave, Families Find It Difficult to Abandon Sinking Island

"I used to love it out here. It was a beautiful place at one time. We could play," Varret said. "Even though the water would come, it would just come to the ankles. It wasn't nothing traumatic. Now it's not like that anymore."

Others have found it difficult to move on.

"It will be hard for us to move because we're used to living here," said Doris Naquin. "We have our roots here, and it's kind of hard to pull an oak tree out of the ground and set it somewhere else."

But that's just what Chief Albert is calling for his tribe to do -- to uproot the few families left on this island, reunite with those who have already left, and head for drier, more secure land 20 miles north.

In the process they will become some of America's first climate refugees, fleeing for higher ground and leaving their ancestral home behind.

Not everything can be packed up and moved away. Moving the graves from the tribe's sacred burial ground is out of the question, Chief Albert says.

"It seems like it would be a nice thing to do, but I think they are just going to stay right here," he said. "They'll be under water, but at least we're not disturbing them."

And so, in the not too distant future, the cemetery will be all that remains from the Biloxi-Chitamacha as this tiny island is slowly swallowed by the sea.