Amid heated armed conflict and humanitarian crises worldwide, the concept of refugees fleeing from persecution is no longer a stranger to the news cycles. Images of families leaving war-torn regions to reach new countries by boat or refugee camps by foot dominates much of foreign reporting.
But here’s a thought: What about those fleeing from danger in the U.S.? And what if the danger isn’t caused by gun battles and airstrikes – it’s the environment?
Deep in the Louisiana Bayou, some 50 miles south of New Orleans, the French-speaking, state-recognized Native American tribe Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw became the United States’ first official climate refugees last week when the federal government awarded them $48 million to migrate. The tribe’s home for centuries, the Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebone Parish, La., has been slowly disappearing due to slow-moving coastal erosion caused by sinking land, climate change, and drilling and dredging for oil and gas.
The $48 million offered to the tribe is part of $92 million awarded to Louisiana as part of a National Disaster Resilience Competition the state won from a Department of Housing and Urban Development competition worth $1 billion for nations and communities nationwide.
More than 1,900 square miles of land have vanished in the last 80 years – equivalent to the size of the football field lost every 45 minutes. Since the 1950s, their land has shrunk from 11 miles long, five miles wide to two miles long and a quarter-mile wide as the Gulf of Mexico continues to creep in. Undoubtedly, this makes the already flood-prone area even more vulnerable. Many homes are now raised more than 13 feet in the air on stilts.
“Fishing was our culture. Trapping was our culture,” says Rev. Roch Naquin, a Native American Catholic priest, to WDSU in New Orleans. “I did that before I would go to school. Used to be able to trap on the other side there. It wasn’t all water like it is now.”
For centuries, the tribe was a coastal fishing community whose livelihoods come from the water that now threatens to submerge them.
“A way of life did disappear,” Traditional Chief Albert Naquin told WDSU. “There used to be a lot of trees. Like I say, I could leave from my house where they had trees, and I could walk in the trees all along here and nobody would see me.”
In 2014, ProPublica, along with a reporter with New Orleans site The Lens, published a report chronicling how a wetlands ecosystem that took nature some 7,000 years to build will be destroyed in a human lifetime. Coupled with a rising sea level courtesy of global warming, changes in the Mississippi delta that were designed to increase flood protection through levee construction have led to an unprecedented loss of land. And if not reversed, the report says, it could lead to “the largest forced migrations for environmental reasons in the history of the country.”
Oil and gas companies have also played a significant role in destroying the landscape, by digging 10,000 miles of pipeline access canals far inland, killing marsh plants. Without plant roots, the soft soil is washed away by what locals refer to as “the saltwater.” That loss is compounded when a hurricane makes landfall, tearing away land in big chunks, weather.com described in their special report on the Louisiana tribe’s plight.
In 2015, as Congress approved its water resources bill, it left out Louisiana’s $13 billion, 98-mile federal flood and hurricane protection plan, called Morganza to the Gulf, despite its approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after more than 20 years of development and discussions.
So then residents raised their own money through taxes, with $300 million raised and more coming. Morganza to the Gulf is designed to protect the fragile marsh in the Terrebonne Parish area from storm surge. But Isle de Jean Charles is not included in the federally approved line of protection because the federal government says it did not meet the cost-to-benefit ratio, according to Reggie Dupree, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee and Construction District. Yet to get to that conclusion, Dupree says, the federal government took 25 years and $72 million to conduct studies on whether Isle de Jean Charles was eligible for hurricane protection. Meanwhile, the area continued to be washed away.
“Honestly, I think there’s maybe one or two generations more,” Dupree says to Climate Progress. “It’s heartbreaking with the culture aspects but sooner or later, as a government official, you have to be realistic about how much you can spend per capita. All you can do is rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic right now.”
The tribe rejected a previous attempt in 2002 by Army Corps to relocate, Indian Country Today reported. But this time, the group got an offer they couldn’t refuse, and the dire nature of their disappearing land left them with few options.
Under a reconfigured federal flood-insurance program, some residents may see their premiums rise by thousands of dollars every year, according to weather.com’s special report. Someone who owns a modest house in Pointe-aux-Chenes might pay $28,000 a year in flood insurance alone, said lifelong resident Patty Whitney, the environmental advocate for Bayou Interfaith Shared Community Organizing, who calls the change “evacuation order by default.”
“They didn’t come out and say, ‘You can’t live here anymore,’” she said. “But if I live on the coast and I can’t get flood insurance, then I can’t get a mortgage. And if I own a house, I can’t sell it. So I’m in a house that I can’t sell, I can’t afford and I can’t insure.”
Yet still, as a community who has settled in the area for hundreds of years, uprooting remains a dicey topic.
“It’s our home,” Whitney said. “We have a deeply ingrained attachment to this place.”