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Native Americans' Relocation From Louisiana Home: 'First Climate Change Refugees'


Members of a small Native American community in south Louisiana are becoming known as America's first climate change refugees. Their coastal home is disappearing and they've received a $48 million dollar grant to retreat inland. As Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO reports, they face the challenge of preserving their culture in the process.

TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Isle de Jean Charles is an island about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. It's small and remote. There's only one road through the marshes, and when it rains, it's accessible only by boat. Boyo Billiot walks through the wild, swampy, overgrown woods and remembers his childhood.

BOYO BILLIOT: We'd leave the house in the morning and wouldn't come back until the afternoon. We can kill all kind of bird. We make us a fire, cook them (laughter), yeah.

WENDLAND: He's here with his daughter, Chantel Comardelle, who was born nearby.

CHANTEL COMARDELLE: There was a trailer right across from here, and then our trailer was on the other side of the bayou across that way. So long as I can remember, this was wooded area. Our trailer, like everybody else's stuff here, got flooded.

WENDLAND: Isle de Jean Charles is on the front lines of Louisiana's dramatic land loss, partly because of man-made changes to the Mississippi River and partly due to rising seas and disappearing coastal marshes. About 2,000 square miles have disappeared in the last century, almost the size of Delaware. And more is lost with every hurricane. Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Chief Albert Naquin visits for a Sunday dinner. Sitting on the back porch, he looks out over open water. It's really beautiful. But to him...

ALBERT NAQUIN: That's dynamite (laughter). You know, there's nothing to stop the hurricane. I mean, there's nothing to stop the water because the water's here. When it comes from the Gulf, I mean, it just comes. And it floods you. You ain't got a chance.

WENDLAND: That has happened again and again. Naquin and his family moved to a neighboring town after a hurricane in the 1970s. Most of the tribe has followed suit. Only about two dozen families remain. Their ancestors moved to the island in the 1800s to escape discrimination. They had big gardens and fished the rich bayous. It's been reduced from 11 miles long to just 2 miles today.

PAT FORBES: Clearly, they are one of, if not the, most endangered community on the coast.

WENDLAND: Pat Forbes is executive director of Louisiana's community development office. He helped the tribe get a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the first ever for climate change-related relocation. He says it's the beginning of a big challenge for Louisiana.

FORBES: There are a lot of folks on the coasts, not just tribes, who are looking for solutions that fit their community.

WENDLAND: In coming years, the state predicts many more will need to leave their coastal homes or be flooded out because of sea level rise and continued erosion. Naquin says it's going to be hard just to get the 60 people on Isle de Jean Charles to move.

NAQUIN: You know, we're spending a lot of money to leave people behind. So we need to get everybody off.

WENDLAND: It is a lot, more than $1 million per family, and they only have three years to spend it. Naquin hopes the appeal of the new land will entice them. It'll be modeled after their traditional bayou villages, but 30 miles inland. They're even bringing native plants. Back in the woods, Comardelle points to some young oak saplings with bright, green leaves. They're surrounded by a forest of white stumps, trees killed by saltwater that inundates the island after every storm.

COMARDELLE: When you see some like this that are just so pretty and healthy, it gives you hope - that not everything is lost.

WENDLAND: She plans to dig them up and bring them to the new community. She hopes someday her kids will be able to play in the woods like her family used to. For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland on Isle de Jean Charles, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.
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