In Louisiana, the first American climate refugees find a new refuge

Joann Bourg stands outside her new home, about an hour’s drive from Louisiana’s Low Island where she grew up – an area that is gradually sinking into the Gulf of Mexico.

“I’m very excited. I can’t wait to move on,” Ms. Bourg said.

“I’ve been waiting for this day forever.”

Joann Bourg has moved into her new home at the New Isle resettlement community in the parish of Terrebonne.(AFP: Cécile Clocheret)

Ms. Bourg is among a dozen Native Americans from Jean Charles Island who have been relocated to Schriever, less than 60 kilometers northwest – the first recipients of a federal resettlement grant awarded in 2016.

They are the first so-called “climate refugees” in the United States, driven from their homes due to the consequences of climate change.

“The house we had there on the island – well, it’s been our house forever. My siblings and I all grew up there, went to school there,” he said. remembers Ms. Bourg.

“It was peaceful.”

Aerial view of a road on Jean Charles Island with water having submerged most of the land around it
The only road connecting Jean Charles Island to the mainland is sometimes impassable due to high winds or tides.(AFP: Cécile Clocheret)

But the family home – like many others on the island – was destroyed.

There is only one road connecting Jean Charles Island to the mainland, and it is sometimes impassable due to high winds or tides.

Residents are primarily of Native American descent – ​​several tribes sought refuge on the island from rampant government persecution in the 1800s.

But climate change has turned the island into a symbol of the scourge that afflicts much of hurricane-prone Louisiana – coastal erosion.

Ninety percent underwater

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards speaks at a lectern outside under a blanket as people sit on either side of him
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards said it was the first time the state had relocated an entire community because of climate change.(AFP: Cécile Clocheret)

Eventually, 37 new homes will be built in Schriever to house about 100 current or former residents of Isle de Jean Charles, thanks to a $48 million ($70.4 million) federal grant originally allocated in 2016.

“This is the first such project in the history of our country,” state governor John Bel Edwards, who was on hand to watch residents close their new properties, told AFP.

“Over the years we’ve had people buying their homes and moving them. But we haven’t made whole communities like this and moved them to one place before because of climate change.”

aerial view of newly built homes on an estate in Louisiana
To build the houses, Louisiana used funds obtained from a new federal program set up to anticipate the consequences of climate change.(AFP: Cécile Clocheret)

Since the 1930s, Jean Charles Island has lost “about 90 percent” of its area to encroaching bayou waters, says Alex Kolker, associate professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

The island was already fragile, but climate change is increasing the risks, he says – sea levels are rising, the ground is sinking and erosion is rampant. More frequent and violent storms compound the problem.

“This community is one of the most vulnerable communities in Louisiana, and Louisiana is one of the most vulnerable places in the United States,” Mr. Kolker said.

dead trees

The road to Isle de Jean Charles is lined with dozens of houses, many of which are stripped down to the stilts.

A year ago, Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana as a dangerous Category 4 storm; it was the second most devastating hurricane on record in the state, following the devastation of Katrina in 2005.

Chris Brunet in a wheelchair next to a sign that says Jean Charles Island is not dead Climate change stinks
Chris Brunet says hurricanes are nothing compared to “salt water intrusion” destroying canals and other waterways.(AFP: Cécile Clocheret)

The storm tore part of Chris Brunet’s roof off his house.

The 57-year-old put up a sign in front of his house: “Climate change sucks”.

Seemingly indifferent to the voracious and ubiquitous mosquitoes, and sometimes speaking the Old Acadian French associated with the region, Brunet says hurricanes are nothing compared to the so-called “saltwater intrusion” destroying canals and other waterways. .

a damaged house behind a yellow chain with a lock and weeds growing behind
Homes on Jean Charles Island are falling apart due to the conditions. (AFP: Cécile Clocheret)

A few years ago, he finally agreed to move, adopting the view of the chief of his Choctaw tribe that it was the only way to preserve the island’s declining community.

But those whose homes remain standing do not want to completely abandon their ancestral land.

Bert Naquin, who is moving into one of the new federally funded homes in Schriever, hopes to paint his family home on Jean Charles Island, despite his joy at first-time homeownership.

“I plan to be there often, because it’s still my home,” said Ms. Naquin, 64.

“This house here is my home. But the island will always be my home in my heart.”

an aerial view of land submerged in water with a road running through it and patches of grassy land
Refugees from Jean Charles Island are considered America’s first climate refugees since 2016. (AFP: Cécile Clocheret)