The state has closed on the $11.7 million purchase of a 515-acre tract of land near Thibodaux that will be the new home of the current residents of Isle de Jean Charles, whose narrow strip of land is under threat from the rising Gulf of Mexico.

The move clears the way for the state to begin planning and construction work on the site, which is about 20 minutes from Houma by car and 40 miles from Isle de Jean Charles.

While the new site is still located amid the cane fields and marshes of southern Louisiana, it is several feet higher than the island, which is at continual risk of inundation due to rising sea levels, subsidence and storm surges.

Since 1955, the island has lost approximately 98 percent of its land, the state said, and some estimates predict that it will be fully underwater in five to 25 years.

Hurricane Gustav damaged approximately half of its 50 homes in 2008, and it took another wallop from Isaac in 2012. About 100 residents remain, spread among some three dozen homes.

The residents of the island, most of whom are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw tribe, have been called the nation's first climate refugees.

The relocation is part of a first-of-its-kind $48 million federal grant to relocate communities affected by climate change. 

The new tract was purchased from an agricultural company and was a sugar cane farm. It's also closer than the island to schools, stores and health care facilities.

The state expects to open applications for resettlement in the next few months and break ground on the new settlement later this year.

“We are one step closer to assisting those residents interested in moving out of harm’s way,” said Pat Forbes, executive director of the state's Office of Community Development, which has spearheaded the project. “We look forward to building the community.”

Residents could move in next year, which means that they could face two more hurricane seasons before moving to the new location. In the interim, the state has offered assistance to residents for temporary housing. 

The state and the landowners signed the purchase agreement in March, but the final closing was delayed while an environmental assessment was conducted on the new site, which sits along La. 24 in Terrebonne Parish. 

The new site could eventually house as many as 200 or 300 houses, more than enough for the island's current residents and recent departures, officials said. 

State chooses site near Thibodaux to relocate Isle de Jean Charles climate refugees


Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.