The first climate refugees in the United States: Isle de Jean Charles
Article by Nine Apperry
Almost 70% of the world’s population lives and evolves along the coasts, which are themselves facing erosion due to global warming. Facing the sea, everyone is concerned about the rising waters.
Isle de Jean Charles, located in the United States, south of Louisiana and opening onto the vast Terrebonne Bay, was inhabited by about 400 Amerindians who formed a tribe of ancestors of French settlers. Living in small houses on stilts, the inhabitants know that their island has always been highly exposed to hurricanes and floods. The tribe has almost always lived self-sufficiently, through farming, hunting, and fishing, but this is no longer possible. The swamps that used to form natural barriers protecting the island from storms are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since the 1950s, they have lost more than 98% of their territory and the area is constantly shrinking. The water is swallowing up the territory without leaving any hope that this piece of land will remain emerged.
The oil industry has seriously damaged the plants and trees that used to reinforce the island’s coastline. The oil companies have caused the coastline to sink gradually. They have taken the liberty of digging thousands and thousands of canals in the heart of the swamp to build pipeline networks and install drilling wells. As a result, the land is gradually crumbling and sinking. After the destructive hurricanes between 2002 and 2008 (Hurricane Isidore, Hurricane Lili, Hurricane Rita, Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Gustav), the coastline has receded enormously. On top of that, the soil is too porous to build any kind of barrier. The barrier used to be more than 15 kilometres long, now it is only about 3 kilometres long. The surface area of the island has been divided by five compared to its original size. The land was buried by natural and man-made causes. So, it was a combination of several factors. High winds, the melting of the Arctic, sea rise and hurricanes have all contributed enormously to the loss of land, but there are also pipelines, dredging of canals for shipping, dikes and dams that have damaged the small island. The standard of living of the tribe has also been greatly reduced due to the loss of plant and animal biodiversity. Many inhabitants decided to leave their island, as the living conditions became too difficult. In the early 2000s, there were only 25 families living on the island. The tribe is therefore obviously very worried about its future. The fear of losing the history of their ancestors, their culture, traditions, and customs is growing.
A coastal protection project was planned. A levee was to be built between Lafourche Bayou and Terrebonne Bayou. A modest dike was built. This should have allowed Isle de Jean Charles to be much less exposed. But all these efforts did not save the island. The engineers had to make the difficult decision to leave it out of the dike project. As a result, it is increasingly vulnerable to bad weather and natural disasters.
Reluctantly, and in the face of constant flooding, the chief of the indigenous community, Albert Naquin, had to decide to make efforts to relocate his entire tribe but above all to save his customs. According to him, the time has come to relocate his entire community. A sugar cane field was chosen so that the inhabitants would not feel out of place. The community spaces and the houses on stilts in which they used to live will normally be rebuilt identically during 2022. They are the first climate refugees in the United States. The U.S. Agency for Housing and Development has allocated $48 million to assist the citizens of Isle de Jean Charles. Some individuals refuse to leave and prefer to end their lives on their native island, among the abandoned and dilapidated houses, which today look more like a ghost town than anything else.
According to several geologists, it is predicted that the island will be completely buried within fifty years. Every year, Louisiana loses about the size of the entire Manhattan. The case of Isle de Jean Charles is far from being an isolated one, if we do not try to contain and limit global warming as much as possible, the world will continue to count more and more climate refugees. Today, there are already an estimated 250 million.