In Louisiana, the first American climate refugees find a new safe haven




Joann Bourg stands in front of her new home, about an hour’s drive from the low-lying Louisiana 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 get going,” Ms Bourg said.

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

Joann Bourg carries her belongings into her new home
Joann Bourg has moved into her new home at The New Isle resettlement community in Terrebonne Parish.(AFP: Cecile Clocheret)

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

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

“The house we had out there on the island – well, it’s been home forever. Me and my siblings all grew up there, went to school down there,” Mrs Bourg recalls.

“It was peaceful.”

aerial photo of a road on the Isle of Jean Charles with water that has submerged most of the land around it
The only road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland is sometimes impassable due to strong winds or tides.(AFP: Cecile Clocheret)

But the family’s home – as with many others on the island – was destroyed.

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

The inhabitants are mainly of Indian descent – several tribes sought refuge on the island from violent government persecution in the 1800s.

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

Ninety percent underwater

Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards speaks at a lectern outdoors under a cover as people sit on either side of him
Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards says this is the first time the state has relocated an entire community due to climate change.(AFP: Cecile 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 US$48 million ($70.4 million) federal grant originally awarded in 2016.

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

“We’ve had people over the years who would buy out their homes and move them. But we haven’t done whole communities like this and moved them to one place before because of climate change.”

aerial view of newly constructed homes in a Louisiana estate
To build the homes, Louisiana used funds from a new federal program created to anticipate the consequences of climate change.(AFP: Cecile Clocheret)

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

The island was already fragile, but climate change increases the risks, he says – sea levels are rising, the land is sinking and erosion is rampant. More frequent and severe 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 says.

Dead trees

The road to Isle de Jean Charles is lined with dozens of homes, many of which have been stripped down to their stilts.

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

Chris Brunet in a wheelchair next to a sign with the text The Isle of Jean Charles is not dead Climate change stinks
Chris Brunet says hurricanes are nothing compared to “salt water intrusion” that destroys canals and other waterways.(AFP: Cecile Clocheret)

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

The 57-year-old placed a sign in front of his home: “Climate change stinks.”

Seemingly indifferent to the voracious and ubiquitous mosquitoes, and occasionally speaking the old Acadian French associated with the area, Mr. Brunet says hurricanes are nothing compared to so-called “saltwater intrusion” that destroys canals and other waterways.

a damaged home behind a yellow chain with a lock and weeds behind it
Home on the Isle of Jean Charles is falling apart due to the conditions. (AFP: Cecile Clocheret)

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

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

Bert Naquin, moving into one of the new federally funded houses in Schriever, hopes to repaint her family home on Isle de Jean Charles, despite her joy at being a first-time homeowner.

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

“This house up here is my house. 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
Isle of Jean Charles refugees are considered the first US climate refugees since 2016. (AFP: Cecile Clocheret)




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