Don't Call Us Climate Refugees

The Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish has been home for more than a century to members of southern Louisiana’s Native American tribes, a close-knit community living in ramshackle houses amid live oak trees and lush wetlands—a modest slice of heaven on the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet as in bayou communities across the region, the island’s residents have watched their ancestral home unravel: wetlands reverting to open water, cypress forests drowning in saltwater, storm surges swamping low-lying homes. Through the combined effects of land loss, sinking soils, and sea-level rise, since 1955 more than 98% of the island has vanished, dwindling from 22,400 acres to just 320 today. Tribal members have scattered: from a peak of 400 residents, today perhaps 85 remain.

Now, the people of Isle de Jean Charles are being catapulted into a new climate-change vanguard. In January, a portfolio of Louisiana projects was awarded more than $230 million by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) through its National Disaster Resilience Competition, a powerful initiative aimed at pivoting Americans from stopgap disaster response toward a more resilient future. About $48 million will be dedicated to moving approximately 25 families from the island, the first time in the lower 48 United States that an entire community has been resettled due to sea-level rise and its catastrophic impacts.

The island’s residents have been called “climate refugees,” but tribal leaders and a range of government, nonprofit, and private-sector partners are intent on proving a different paradigm: resettlement isn’t triage for a battered tribe on the run, but a catalyst that can summon together a splintered community, enhance its identity, and create a new cultural landscape defined not by sorrow but a fresh sense of agency in a fast-changing world.

“We have been working on this for 13 years,” remarked Chief Albert Naquin, leader of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, when the HUD award was announced. “Finally, we can bring our people to a safe place to enjoy life together and move forward with better living conditions and a higher quality of life.”

Whether this pilot resettlement succeeds as a pivotal feat of resilience has implications for the rest of us. “This delta down here is the real test case for the United States,” said David Waggonner, president of New Orleans–based Waggonner and Ball Architects, and a partner in the state’s resilience initiatives. “We’re in a landscape of uncertainty, and the move by the Isle de Jean Charles tribe is an emblem. It’s a demonstration under duress of relocation strategy.”

Louisiana as coastal resilience lab

It’s no secret that Louisiana has become a worldwide bellwether for the impacts of sea-level rise. Due to a litany of factors, the region leads the world in coastal land loss: more than 16 square miles every year succumb to erosion. If this fraying bayou landscape has become a poster child for climate change, it is also fast becoming a laboratory for coastal resilience. As state officials put it in announcing their HUD award: “We are at ground zero of the world’s next great challenge, and we’re poised to deliver a set of solutions that changes the way the world thinks about and interacts with the sea.”

To that end, Louisiana has developed a framework known as Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments (LA SAFE), a policy for hurricane-impacted areas that amounts to a radical rethinking of coastal land use and development patterns. At its heart is a three-pronged plan to resettle communities that can’t be fortified; retrofit those vital to the region’s economy; and reshape high-ground territories to best foster economic and population growth.

While promising projects are moving ahead to retrofit communities—HUD awarded the city of New Orleans $141 million to create a “resilience district” in the Gentilly neighborhood—it is the first of the state’s strategies, resettlement, that has proven a flashpoint for framing climate change’s toll.

At the Isle de Jean Charles, resilience has gone existential. Previous efforts to relocate the island’s residents, including one spearheaded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2002, stalled amid logistical complexities. The island’s future grew more precarious when the $10.3 billion Morganza to the Gulf coastal protection project—first authorized in 2007 and stretching 98 miles across the state’s exposed southern flank—left Isle de Jean Charles outside its system of levees, locks, pumps, and floodgates due to cost constraints.

This time, backed by HUD funding, the state has launched what it sees as a national model for climate-change resettlement: “an organized, reasoned retreat from a coast that is going away,” as officials wrote. Resettlement is voluntary, and a full buyout of property will be offered to residents who do not wish to participate. The result, officials hope, will move residents to higher ground while supporting social networks and maintaining cultural integrity.

Above all, it will forge fresh thinking about how resilience can be strengthened through shared human connections. “It’s becoming more and more clear that community cohesiveness is one of the most important aspects of resilience,” said Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. “If all those people can go together, then they’re together the next time something comes along, as opposed to the old model of just buying everybody out and they scatter to the winds.”

Alessandra Jerolleman, a hazard mitigation planner with the nonprofit Lowlander Center, which is working on the resettlement, added that years of conversations with tribal members have made clear the importance of framing this move not as a flight from climate hazards, but as an opportunity to give the tribe control over its destiny. “This entire resettlement process is about having agency,” she said. “It’s about the community members coming together to plan for their future.”

Crafting a new cultural landscape

Thus have ensued rounds of reflection, consultation, and storytelling to assess needs and priorities for the new community. That treasured canopy of live oak trees, the tribe’s relationship to water, proximity to one’s grandparents—all aspects of the island experience have informed the relocation effort. “It’s a proof-of-concept, holistic approach,” explained Kristina Peterson, the Lowlander Center’s facilitator. “Everything is an integrated system—the social, the anthropological, and the physical.”

According to Jerolleman, planners currently envision a 500-acre community with the capacity for as many as 120 households. Once a site is selected—ideally within Terrebonne Parish, likely on former agricultural land—it will need to be purchased and an ownership structure established. (An ownership model will also be needed for the Isle de Jean Charles itself, which will be retained for traditional uses for as long as it survives.) Then begins the physical process of building the receiving community and moving residents to their new home.

Given the tribe’s close relationship to its land, an overarching goal is to retain as much of the island’s sense of place as possible. Site design concepts have been inspired by the palmetto, a plant traditionally used by local indigenous cultures. With its fan-shaped leaf structure spreading out from a central core, the palmetto offers a resonant symbol of community. “This is about as biomimetic a design as we’ve ever done,” said Joseph Evans, whose landscape architecture practice Evans + Lighter is working with the planning team.

The base of the plant’s stalk would be situated close to an access road, anchored by a tribal center that doubles as a storm-refuge space. Moving outward along the fan, an agroforestry zone would contain medicinal plants and other species used by the community, informed by ethnobotany studies on the island. The team aims to introduce live oak acorns, as well as seeds from other herbs, forbs, and flowers prized by the tribe. “We can’t really save their connection to the water in the same way,” Evans said, “but we can try to save everything about the island that’s valuable to them.”

Houses would be arrayed around the perimeter of the fan, echoing a beloved aspect of Isle de Jean Charles’s long, linear layout, which allows residents to sit on front porches and visit with neighbors walking by. Tribal members have worked with a group of designers, including indigenous architects from Hawaii, to consider housing that could adhere to safer building standards. (Residents will also have the opportunity to learn sustainable building techniques, giving them training for employment in the region.)

New bayous are imagined that would provide circulation—“You could actually canoe across the site to go visit your grandma,” Evans said—while capturing stormwater to feed crayfish and wild rice ponds. The team has even called for the restoration of imperiled Cajun prairie habitat, replete with roaming buffalo. “It’s not just green infrastructure, it’s not just resilience, and it’s not just ecological re-generation,” Evans added. “It’s about establishing a cultural landscape.”

State and federal officials hope that this painstaking proof-of-concept will pave the way for other communities in similar straits. In Alaska, for example, which is warming at twice the rate of the continental U.S., resettlement planning is under way for remote villages imperiled by melting permafrost and dwindling Arctic sea ice. Since tribal communities often settle near rivers and coastal areas to be close to hunting and gathering grounds, more creative solutions will be needed to sustain cultures that view subsistence living not as a hardship but as a life-enriching process.

What’s for certain in the climate-change debate is that the people of Isle de Jean Charles may be on the front lines, but we all have a stake in their future. “If you start watching where these salt- and freshwater lines are going to move, there’s going to be an awful lot of migration,” observed architect David Waggonner. “It’s not only about the native people. We shouldn’t see these people as other—we should see them as us.”

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    August 16, 2016

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