ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES
Looking out from the house he built in 1959 with lumber brought by boat to this island at the south end of Terrebonne Parish, Wenceslaus Billiot remembers when the view from his back porch was thick forest and solid marsh.
Now there is just open water.
With their homes growing ever more vulnerable to hurricanes, the 89-year-old Billiot and other residents of Isle de Jean Charles soon will have the choice of whether to stay on this slip of land or relocate, hopefully with their neighbors, to higher ground.
This opportunity comes thanks to a $48 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to move the entire community. It’s a first of its kind for Louisiana and a test case for the choice other coastal communities will be facing as land loss continues: Leave or stay and be overwhelmed by storm after storm.
Born and raised on Isle de Jean Charles, Billiot traveled overseas during World War II before returning home to marry his sweetheart Denecia, now 91, and raise their family on the island surrounded by friends and family.
Over the decades, he and other members of the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Indians have watched the island they call home slowly disappear with each high tide and tropical storm.
“When I was a young kid, right there in the backyard you could walk on the marsh. You could go anywhere you wanted,” Billiot said, remembering the territory where he used to hunt. “Now it’s different. There’s nothing back there.”
Not only is the island smaller, but the population has shrunk as well. Each storm becomes the last straw for residents grown weary of shoveling mud out of their homes or rebuilding altogether. Currently, only 27 families remain on the island, mostly a mixture of young families with teenagers and elderly, long-time residents. Other tribal members have scattered to nearby, more inland communities like Houma or Montegut.
Bringing that community back together is the thought behind a plan to relocate the entire tribe en masse.
“I’ve always wanted for people to get back together so we can be a community again,” said Albert Naquin, the tribe’s chief.
Working with the Lowlander Center, a nonprofit in Terrebonne Parish headed by a former senior research associate with the Center for Hazards Assessment Response and Technology at the University of New Orleans, the tribe came up with a framework of what the new site could look like.
For Naquin, the vision is for the state and the tribe to find about 500 acres somewhere north of Houma where there would be a community center and, eventually, homes for at least 100 families. The concept also envisions a health clinic, a plan to encourage business startups like selling prepared food, and other amenities.
Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development-Disaster Recovery Unit, said the grant won’t pay to carry out all of Naquin’s dreams but is intended to provide a safe place for the 27 families still on the island to move while setting up the infrastructure and community spaces that will allow for expansion as other tribal families move to the new location.
At the vanishing point
Although people have been moving away from coastal Louisiana communities as far back as the 1800s, this will be the first attempt in the state to preserve the culture of a specific community by permanently evacuating an entire group of people.
Despite a highly lauded state master plan for coastal restoration and protection, land loss is expected to continue at a rate of 25 to 35 square miles a year into at least the near future. Certain areas of the coast will be washed away, including Isle de Jean Charles.
The erosion of the island occurred over the lifetime of the older residents, shrinking from 22,400 acres in 1955 to the approximately 320 acres it covers today.
Naquin, who has worked on the relocation effort for years, said it’s important to create a new community location where former residents can reconnect. The island was the focal point of the tribe, and without it, the families and community members are losing touch.
“If we don’t get this resettlement, the tribe is probably going to vanish,” Naquin said.
Chris Brunet, 50, lives on the island and said that even though it will be hard to re-create the beauty of enjoying a nice spring day so close to the coast, if relocation is going to happen, the planning needs to start now.
“The impact of the storms is getting worse, and it’s because of coastal erosion,” Brunet said. “We’ve been dealing with this for the last 15 years while relocation has been on the table.”
Although some land might be around for a few more years, Brunet knows it won’t last long enough for teenagers living there now to enjoy it well into their adult lives.
“That’s what makes moving or not moving difficult,” he said.
As other communities face a similar threat from an eroding coastline, many people are watching how the island project moves forward in the next couple of years.
“We are looking at this as a kind of test case,” said Bren Haase, chief of planning and research for the state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Tribe vs. nation
Retreat from the coast is not a new phenomenon in south Louisiana. In 1893, a hurricane tore through the island vacation community of Cheniere Caminada, killing an estimated 2,000 people. Many people relocated to places like Golden Meadow or Raceland. In a more recent example, when Hurricane Katrina in 2005 destroyed much of St. Bernard Parish, many people migrated to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
However, this marks the first time an entire community will be moved as a group to a new location because of the slow, creeping disappearance of their land.
Although wholesale relocation of communities in not being considered in the 2017 master plan, one component of it looks at alternative means of getting people out of harm’s way, mainly by elevating homes and businesses. However, it’s possible that sometime in the future it will be too expensive to raise all the buildings in a community, and discussions will turn to moving.
“It’s up to a community, not up to the state,” Haase said.
For the residents of Isle de Jean Charles, finding relocation funding has been a long road, as two previous attempts didn’t bear fruit. In addition, there’s the complicating factor of criticism about the process from another tribe.
Recently, the United Houma Nation sent a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards saying it has members on the island but was never notified about the grant application or process.
Naquin said the United Houma Nation has made the claim for years that residents on the island belong to that nation. But he said his tribe of about 600 members is a separate political group and he’s never seen documentation that any member of the tribe on the island has joined the Houma nation.
He blames the larger Houma Nation, which has about 17,000 members across six coastal parishes, for the failure of the two previous relocation attempts.
United Houma Nation Principal Chief Thomas Dardar Jr. said his group had nothing to do with the failure of previous relocation attempts. He sent the letter to the state so they could be brought into the conversation, he said.
‘A slow-eating cancer’
The long-running disagreement shouldn’t have any impact on the relocation planning because the grant was awarded to relocate residents of the island, not members of any specific tribe, Forbes said.
For 21 years, Reggie Dupre represented the Isle de Jean Charles area in the state Legislature. Now he is the director of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District, working to build levee protection for large parts of the parish. He credits the chief with finally making the move a reality.
“Naquin never gave up,” he said.
At one point, he said, there were 150 families living on the island, but by the time the first relocation attempt was discussed in 2002, after Hurricane Lili, that number had dwindled to about 85. There was another push after the 2008 hurricane season, when Hurricane Gustav destroyed a number of homes on the island, but that too fell through.
Since 2002, he said, the island has lost more than two-thirds of the population.
“Just people getting tired of flooding,” Dupre said. “It’s been like a slow-eating cancer.”
Wenceslaus Billiot said he thinks it’s probably a good idea to move, but at his age, he noted with a laugh, the decision of whether he’ll ever move to the new community depends on how long it takes.
More practically, he pointed to the lone raised road — now surrounded by water — that connects the island to the mainland and said the end for Isle de Jean Charles is approaching.
“If they don’t have no more road, I don’t think it would be good to stay over here anymore,” he said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.