On a sinking Louisiana island, many aren’t ready to leave
This island will cease to exist. That much seems certain.
Over the last six decades, more than 98% of Isle de Jean Charles has vanished into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a frail strip of land just two miles long and a quarter-mile wide.
With each high tide and with each hurricane, a little more of this historic Native American land sinks below the surface.
Cow pastures are gone. Rice fields are gone. The encroaching saltwater seeps into the roots of the towering live oaks that loom over the bayou, transforming them into eerie gray skeletons.
Only about 40 residents remain — down from a peak of more than 300 — and few take part in the old rituals: crabbing on the bayou, trapping muskrats and mink, afternoon coffee on the front porch.
As life on this narrow ridge of Louisiana’s coast becomes more precarious, the state is pressing ahead with an unprecedented national experiment: a $48-million plan to move the entire community out of harm’s way and build a new settlement in the hope of restoring its cultural traditions and old way of life.
Construction is scheduled to begin this year. But the prospect of rebuilding this sinking community seems increasingly unlikely as tribal leaders who spearheaded the effort have accused the state of hijacking their project and are now urging residents not to move.
“The plan was to reunite the tribe and now it’s going to be destroyed,” said Albert Naquin, the 72-year-old chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, who was born on the island but left after a hurricane destroyed his home in 1974. “Everything went sour.”
In any case, persuading the island’s last holdouts to leave will not be easy.
“It’s a paradise out here,” Edison Dardar, a 69-year-old fisherman, said as he tromped through his lush backyard in white rubber shrimp boots, stooping to pick up a chicken, survey his neat rows of green beans and admire the nascent fruit of his blackberry bush and persimmon tree.
“This here can’t be remade someplace,” Chris Brunet, 53, said as he looked out across the open land where his family used to grow okra and cantaloupe. “It’s just impossible. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a setting away from the world.”
In the beginning, the island wasn’t even an island.
When the first settler — a Frenchman named Jean Marie Naquin, who had been disowned by his family for marrying an American Indian — arrived in the early 1800s, it was a ridge covered in dense thickets of live oaks and surrounded by miles of swampy marshland.
He named it for his father, who traveled to this spot 50 miles southwest of New Orleans while working for the pirate Jean Lafitte.
The remote land was a refuge for the family throughout the mid-1800s — when Native Americans across the Southeast were forced from their land in a mass relocation that became known as the Trail of Tears. Over the years, Dardars, Chaissons and Billiots joined the Naquins, building simple mud homes with palmetto-thatched roofs on each side of the bayou that formed the main artery of the community.
People mostly kept to themselves, surviving off the land and sea, catching fish, oysters and shrimp, hunting rabbits and deer and raising cows, chickens and pigs.
Modern times did not come to Isle de Jean Charles until 1953, when a two-mile road was built across the marshland to connect the community to Pointe-aux-Chene on the mainland.
Many residents eyed the causeway with suspicion, fearing it would bring outsiders who would try to wrench them from the land.
“If you hear or see a car coming, go hide,” Naquin’s mother warned him.
As it turned out, there was a far greater threat: the vast network of flood-control dams and levees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was erecting along the Mississippi River.
The system disrupted the flow of sediment into the Mississippi River Delta, a natural process that counteracts the erosion of marshes and wetlands by the encroaching waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Making matters worse, the oil and gas industries were expanding in the delta, and the elaborate web of channels that companies carved through the wetlands for boats and drilling rigs also brought in saltwater that weakened plant roots and hastened erosion. Scientists say climate change will only exacerbate the problem by raising the sea level.
When Isle de Jean Charles became an island is a matter of debate, as the changing marshland around it made the edges difficult to define.
With less marshland buffering the island from waves and storm surge, hurricanes take an ever more devastating toll.
In the last two decades, the number of households has dwindled from about 80 to 20 as a succession of hurricanes — Lili, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Isaac — slammed the island, filling homes with thick mud.
A ring of levees built more than a decade ago offers some protection from flooding, but the once-free-flowing bayou is now stagnant and strewn with tires, plastic foam take-out boxes and plastic chairs.
The oyster shacks that once lined its banks have been torn down. The only business is a small marina selling bait, fishing lures and Michelob Ultra.
The remaining islanders are retired or work off the island as grocery store clerks and hospital janitors, commercial fishermen and tugboat captains.
“We don’t mingle like we used to,” said Al Naquin, 68, the chief’s cousin, as he stood on his porch and pointed out the shed that had replaced his grandfather’s grocery store — which also used to serve as a dance hall, church and school.
While a few islanders fish for flounder and trout or grow okra and green beans, others are just as likely to pick up hot dogs and frozen tilapia from a Walmart in Houma, 25 miles away.
Some of the older residents still converse in Cajun French, just like their parents and grandparents, but many of their grandchildren do not understand them.
Most days, residents remain indoors, listening to country music or watching TV.
“It feels like a ghost town,” Erica Billiot, 37, said as her 6-year-old son, Tristan, played on the edge of a broken wooden bridge over the bayou.
Initially, Billiot was excited about moving to higher ground.
Whenever strong southern winds blow, she worries that high tides will flood the only road to the mainland, cutting her off from her job as a baggage handler at a local heliport and preventing the bus from ferrying Tristan to school.
But as she mulls the state plan and the thought of losing her family’s weathered clapboard home, she leans toward staying put a while longer.
“It’s going to go away before I pass,” she said. “It’s only a matter of time.”
It was about 20 years ago when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first approached the chief with the idea of relocating islanders.
Naquin’s first thought: “Wow, a modern-day Trail of Tears!”
But as the barrel-chested Army veteran contemplated the island’s fate, he changed his mind.
Saving the island seemed like a lost cause. In 2002, the Corps decided to exclude the island from a massive 72-mile levee system it was planning, dooming it to a future underwater.
Naquin’s first two attempts to resettle the community failed, as the Corps required a unanimous buy-in, and a small group of residents did not want to leave.
“You can’t get 100% of people to agree on anything,” he said.
Naquin pressed on, working with nonprofits and the state to develop a plan for a community with homes on stilts, a bayou, grocer, tribal museum, green space for powwows and grazing land for buffalo.
“This here can’t be remade some place. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a setting away from the world.”
Chris Brunet, a lifelong resident of Isle de Jean Charles
In his vision, the community would be not just a safe place for island residents but also a gathering point for the 600 members of his tribe now scattered across coastal Louisiana.
But soon after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dedicated $48 million to the project in 2016, a rival tribe, United Houma Nation, came forward with a complaint: It had been left out of the plan despite having historic ties to the island.
Interviewing islanders, state officials found that most, but not all, identified — at least loosely — with the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. A few said they did not trust tribal leaders to execute a resettlement fairly.
That put Louisiana officials in an awkward position: Federal law does not allow housing projects to discriminate based on tribal affiliation or race.
In a decision that remains a major sticking point with Naquin’s tribe, the state went on to invite both tribes to the table as “stakeholders” with the aim of rebuilding the island’s “unique” culture.
“HUD would not have given us money just to go build a subdivision,” said Patrick Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. “We would consider it a failure if all we did was get people moved out of harm’s way.”
The state plans to create lots for 150 single-family homes on land that had been used for sugarcane fields about 40 miles northwest of the island. The new settlement would also include wetlands, bayous, orchards, a fishing pond, a solar farm and a pasture.
About 30 households — islanders who live full time on the island or were displaced after Hurricane Isaac in 2012 — are eligible for a new home. Some former residents displaced before then would be eligible for a vacant lot, and then any remaining lots would likely be auctioned to the public.
The chief is instructing island residents not to move.
“The state stole our plan to get the money and now they are running off with it,” he said. “It wasn’t for the white folks. We were supposed to have a tribal community.… Now anybody can go.… It’s going to be like a Section 8 subdivision.”
Residents would be allowed to keep their existing homesteads — at least as long as they are above water — with the stipulation that they can’t be sold, rebuilt or used as a primary residence.
The tribe balks at those conditions, complaining the deal gives native islanders fewer rights than the cluster of outsiders who have second homes or fishing shacks on the island. State officials counter that those people are not getting new $170,000 houses.
Residents also worry they will struggle to pay higher property taxes or home insurance in the new community — despite state assurances that those costs will be offset by the energy-saving design of the new homes — on top of their bills if they keep their old properties.
“The plan was to reunite the tribe, and now it’s going to be destroyed,” Naquin said. “Instead of fixing it, I broke it.”
Only one islander showed no hesitation about moving.
“While there’s an opportunity to move to higher ground, wisdom says take advantage of it,” said Father Roch Naquin, a sprightly 86-year-old retired Catholic priest. “If you do not move now and something terrible happens, where are you going to go?”
When he speaks to neighbors, he urges them to have faith that they can bring their spirit to a new place.
“Life changes,” he said. “Just as somehow there was a community built up over here, we have to wake up and build a community wherever we are. That’s the important thing.”
Many residents said that holding on to their native land, or just keeping on with tradition, seemed more important than building a new community.
“I stick to myself,” said Bert Naquin, 61, a health clinic clerk who moved back to the island a year ago after her mother died, affixing a green sign to her front deck saying the home was not for sale. “I’m not afraid to live here by myself.”
No matter how many residents ultimately decide to move, a small band of die-hards vows to resist.
“I stay, me,” said Dardar, the fisherman, as he stood underneath his raised home slicing a fresh trout with a fillet knife. “I ain’t planning to go nowhere, because I don't think the island’s going nowhere.”
Now that the saltwater comes closer to his backyard, he prefers to focus on the positive: He can catch redfish and shrimp where he used to hunt ducks.
“I say it’s changed for the better, me,” he said. “No complaints from me!”
Dardar does not bother himself worrying about whether water will eventually submerge Island Road, cutting his family off from the mainland.
“We would do it the same way, like my dad used to do,” he said with a defiant jut of his chin. “Go get the stuff by boat.”
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