Isle de Jean Charles – “its time to leave”
ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES — Chief Albert Naquin is tired. Tired of seeing his community flooded. Tired of begging for help.
More than a week after Hurricane Gustav pushed water over the ring levee protecting the island in south Terrebonne Parish, where descendants of several American Indian communities still live, Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, declared: “This is my last one. I’m not going to keep doing this.”
Naquin says it is time for the island’s remaining residents to move farther inland, surrendering their way of life to the twin threats of storm surge and coastal erosion.
Even as he spoke, another reminder of the island’s vulnerability was closing in. Hurricane Ike brought a 9-foot storm surge a little more than a week later, overtopping the island’s 6- to 7-foot levee and swamping homes again. The exasperated chief reiterated what he said after Gustav: This is the last hurricane season he will seek relief for those who refuse to move off the island.
People on the island do not give up easily. For generations, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians have lived on the low-lying ridge, which they jokingly call “the bathtub.” Their community has flooded in so many hurricanes that some residents regard hurricane season as an annual test, an ordeal they endure so they can remain connected to the land.
But storm surges are not the only enemy. The island is slowly eroding into the Gulf of Mexico. Most residents do not have the money to continually rebuild, and the community already knows it will never get stronger levee protection.
So, Naquin and tribal leaders once again will try to rally the community of 150 to 175 people to move to higher ground. This time, he hopes tribal leaders will be successful.
“How much beating can you take before you give up?” asked Naquin, 61. “I’m getting too old to be fighting and trying to help people that don’t want to be helped.”
Long history on island
Until the 1950s, American Indians on the island were so isolated that the community was reachable only by boat. The elders still speak in their native Cajun French.
CHRIS GRANGER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNEJust a week after Hurricane Gustav destroyed Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Terrebone Parish many residents have not been able to return.
The struggle to stay is really a desire to cling to familiarity, to roots and island traditions and to land where generations have buried their dead in an area now marked by a slender 10-foot-tall white cross. Naquin understands the comforts and sentimentality. He regales visitors with how the island used to boast the best fishers and farmers around, how a single building was the grocery store, dance hall and church.
“I was born on the water,” said oyster fisherman Edison Dardar, whose home flooded in Hurricane Andrew and has been rebuilt. “This is my home.”
In the early 1800s, French, Cajun, Spanish and Indian people lived along southern Louisiana’s bayous, including bands of the Choctaw, Biloxi and Houma Indians. Isle de Jean Charles was officially considered “uninhabitable swamp land” until the state sold plots of property, according to history Naquin provided. Jean Baptiste Narcisse and three other family members bought the first plots, and the island’s original families grew from Frenchmen who married American Indian women.
The island survived, even as hurricanes washed away other coastal Louisiana towns. In 1893, a hurricane destroyed the Cheniere Caminada settlement near Grand Isle, killing at least half of the 1,600 residents. Cheniere Caminada survivors moved north to Leeville, but a 1915 hurricane devastated the town, killing dozens.
Island residents have seen their world change, pointing out how flooding has worsened during the years since Hurricane Betsy in 1965. A few residents have elevated their homes, but saltwater encroaches the marsh on all sides of the island, taking the land where people farmed and gardened just 40 years ago.
Like other bayou communities, Isle de Jean Charles is a victim of coastal erosion, subsidence and sea-level rise. The oil and gas industry’s construction of canals for vessels and pipelines enabled saltwater from the Gulf to invade and destroy freshwater wetlands. Levee building also caused southern Louisiana communities to be cut off from the Mississippi River and its sediments, which would have replenished the land and prevented it from sinking.
Isle de Jean Charles once stretched about four miles wide, but is now a quarter-mile wide. The population, which Naquin said peaked at 350 to 400 people, has shrunk too. Flooding started driving people away after Hurricane Carmen in 1974, when families sought better jobs and solid ground. Some residents left after they got married. Just as the population and marsh have withered, by the mid-1970s so did the few grocery stores. The island’s one-room schoolhouse closed more than 50 years ago.
The island is now simply a ridge with houses and a few fishing camps on both sides of a single road. The view is picturesque, but sad if one knows about the steady march of erosion. Most residents work as fishermen or on supply boats and do not earn much of a living. Naquin said someone once boasted to him that he made $10,000 one year, believing that was good money.
The island’s last hope for hurricane protection died a few years ago when a 72-mile Morganza to the Gulf levee plan that would shield Houma — and also protect towns such as Dulac and Montegut — left the island on the unprotected side. The Army Corps of Engineers decided it would be too expensive to route the levee around the island. So residents live by a routine: Evacuate. Brace for floodwaters, and salvage what is left.
The chief has his own routine after storms. To examine the damage, Naquin journeys about two to three miles down Island Road, a sliver of a two-lane roadway over water that connects the island to southern Pointe-aux-Chenes in lower Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes.
Saltwater lapped over the edge of the road a few days after Gustav. The road, so narrow that two trucks cannot pass each other without one falling off the edge into the saltwater, is steadily sinking.
A few days after Gustav, the air on the island reeked of dead fish. Dried mud carpeted the front lawns of homes. One house sat atop a levee, washed off its foundation about 40 feet away.
Relying on help
Usually, a relief island team is ready to help. Naquin’s wife joins other wives and relatives, including tribal leaders and a handful of Pointe-aux-Chenes Indians. Naquin solicits help from nonprofit groups — food, blankets, diapers, toothpaste, whatever flood victims need — and the team hauls the donations to the island.
But soon, he fears they will be left to fend for themselves.
“I love to help people, but somebody ought to understand that help is coming to an end — not just from me, from charity, those giving the stuff,” Naquin said.
Naquin comes from a line of Naquins who have served as chief. His brother last held the title and passed it to Naquin in 1997. Since then, Naquin has coordinated local relief efforts for a number of major hurricanes, including Juan, Andrew, Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike.
He has not lived on the island since the 1970s. Like other residents, Naquin and his wife left after Hurricane Carmen to move to Pointe-aux-Chenes. All along, he has hoped others would follow, or at least take advantage of opportunities to relocate. Slowly, they have, he said. Naquin knows of six families that left after Rita in 2005.
A few years before Rita, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed moving the entire community because the corps could not protect the residents under the Morganza levee plan. The idea never gained much traction, said Carl Anderson, senior project manager for the Morganza to the Gulf project.
Naquin said about 80 percent of the people on the island were convinced. The corps wanted 100 percent participation. After a heated public hearing in 2002, the plan died, Naquin said. Island residents on the cusp of deciding to leave stayed instead, Naquin said. He dropped the issue.
But in the aftermath of Gustav and Ike, Naquin said that if he and tribal leaders find enough people interested in relocating, they will present a plan to Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration. Naquin said he hopes the community would be able to move together and retain ownership of the land.
Culture in peril
Even in nearby southern Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, Ike flooded some Pointe-aux-Chenes Indians’ homes. But Pointe-aux-Chenes is on higher ground, so the damage was less severe than on the island.
Tribal leaders and tribal attorneys say the recent storms again sound the alarm that Louisiana’s coastal communities need stronger flood protection and more emphasis on coastal and wetlands restoration to reduce surge. They also acknowledge that homes need to be built to withstand storm surge and hurricane-force winds if these bayou enclaves are to survive.
“These communities are cultural and historical assets,” said Joel Waltzer, a tribal attorney for the Pointe-aux-Chenes Indians.
Waltzer said losing the communities “would mean the end of an entire lifestyle and, in this case, the end of an entire people.”
The idea of leaving Isle de Jean Charles is hard for some to embrace.
“Where are we going to go?” said island native Virgil Dardar, an oyster fisherman. “Here, we are at home.”
Dardar’s house is elevated 8 feet, but Gustav’s floodwaters rose to the floorboards, buckling sections of a house that also flooded in Betsy and Carmen. Chris Brunet, a lifelong resident who lives next door to Dardar, said the flooding might force people to leave, but he is not yet ready to go.
“That day for me still remains to be seen,” he said, laughing, as he sat in Dardar’s kitchen. “I’m still struggling with that right now.”