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Potential relocation of Isle de Jean Charles residents highlights climate crisis threat to social capital

The global climate crisis has forced many to think about what position their properties and livelihoods will be in as tides continue to rise. For some communities, like the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, the question of how to be resilient and preserve social capital in the face of rising tides is an existential one.

A structure with damage caused by Hurricane Gustav on Isle de Jean Charles (Source Flickr/ Karen Apricot)
A structure with damage caused by Hurricane Gustav on Isle de Jean Charles (Source Flickr/ Karen Apricot)

The Isle de Jean Charles is now a small strip of land about half a mile wide and two miles long. Though the Isle, despite its name, is now a small island which became connected to the mainland of Louisiana by a road paved in the 1950’s. Most residents of the Isle belong to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, and have lived on the Isle for generations. At one point, more than 300 people lived there, and now it is home to about 40 residents. The community has “strong social and cultural bonds, as well as a self-sufficient relationship to its land.” As the sea level has risen and storms have become more severe, the ability to continue living on the Isle has become unsustainable.

The residents’ bonds and ties are some of the factors making the State of Louisiana’s plan to relocate the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe a source of tension on the Isle. However, the idea to relocate is not a new one. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was first to suggest the Tribe move to the mainland, and a few years later left the Isle out of major levee system plan. Although once opposed to the idea, Albert Naquin, the Chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, has attempted to plan a relocation project twice in the past twenty years.

A house on stilts survives flooding after Hurricane Gustav hits Isle de Jean Charles (Source Flickr/ Karen Apricot)
A house on stilts survives flooding after Hurricane Gustav hits Isle de Jean Charles (Source Flickr/ Karen Apricot)

In 2016 the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development committed $48 million to a relocation project that, in the eyes of many of the Isle’s residents, is marred. The project allows the land which Naquin and others believed to be exclusively for their tribe to actually be available to any Americans eligible for subsidized housing. Breaking up the community bonds of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe can be seen as a threat to resilience as severe as what is directly posed by the climate crisis. Naquin has said that “The plan was to reunite the tribe, and now it’s going to be destroyed.” He is now telling the Isle’s residents they should not relocate.

The Isle de Jean Charles residents have been labeled by some to be the first group of people forced to evacuate their homes and leave their lifestyles to escape the effects of the climate crisis. As their community struggles with the decision of relocation, the question of how other coastal communities will be forced to come to terms with the rising sea levels become increasingly pertinent. 

Sources and Further Reading

On a sinking Louisiana island, many aren’t ready to leaveThe Los Angeles Times

Isle de Jean Charles Tribe Turns Down Funds to Relocate First US ‘Climate Refugees’ as Louisiana Buys Land AnywayDesmog 

A Tribe Faces Rising Tides: The Resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles – LSU Journal of Energy Law and Resources

Staying Afloat: How Federal Recognition as a Native American Tribe Will Save the Residents of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana – Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law

America’s great climate exodus is starting in the Florida KeysNational Mortgage News