Louisiana relocates the first American climate refugees

“I can’t wait to move in, I’ve been waiting for this day for an eternity!”, Says Joann Bourg in front of her new home, 60 km from the island just emerged from the bayou on which she grew up, and that the rise water threatens a little more each day.

On this Wednesday in August, a dozen Amerindians who lived on the Isle of Jean Charles finally receive the keys to the houses built for them in Schriever, inland from the Cajuns. They are the first recipients of federal relocation assistance to Louisiana in 2016.
They are also America’s first climate refugees.

“The house we had on the island has always been our home. My brothers and sisters and I grew up there, we went to school there,” recalls Joann Bourg, whose the family residence was completely destroyed.

The place they had to flee, the Isle of Jean Charles, is a square kilometer confetti. It is populated by descendants of several Amerindian tribes who took refuge there to escape state persecution in the 19th century.

But global warming has transformed the island into a symbol of the evil that is devouring Louisiana, erosion.
This southern state, regularly bereaved by destructive hurricanes, sees its coastline recede inexorably.

Eventually, 37 new houses will be built in Schriever to house a hundred residents or former residents of the Isle of Jean Charles, thanks to $48 million in federal aid.
“This is the first project of its kind in the history of our country,” said Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards, who came to attend the property handovers.

“We had already bought houses to move people. But we had never moved an entire community because of climate change,” he says.
Since the 1930s, the Isle of Jean Charles has lost 90% of its surface, explains Alex Kolker, associate professor at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.

The Isle of Jean Charles was already fragile, and climate change “puts it even more in danger”, with the drop in ground level, the rising waters, or the increase in the frequency and intensity of storms , he adds.

This area is “one of the most vulnerable in Louisiana”, a state that already ranks among the most vulnerable in the country, he says.
Along the only road to the Isle of Jean Charles there are still a few dozen houses, of which sometimes only the pilings remain.

Last summer, Hurricane Ida hit very hard, sweeping part of the roof of Chris Brunet, 57, who put up a sign outside his home: “Climate change sucks”.
In a wheelchair since adolescence, he now lives in a caravan, at the foot of the house where he raised his orphaned niece and nephew.

Indifferent to the mosquitoes of dusk and sometimes speaking in old Acadian French, Chris Brunet explains that the terrifying hurricanes are nothing compared to the sea water which nibbles more and more the bayou.
“So many trees have died because of salt water penetration,” he laments.

However, too attached to the land where his family has lived for five generations, Chris Brunet has long stubbornly refused the idea of ​​moving. “Nobody wanted it!” he exclaims.

A few years ago, he finally rallied to the opinion of the chief of his tribe, the Choctaws, convinced that this was the only way to preserve the population of the Isle of Jean Charles, who was yielding more and more to the exodus.
But those whose house is still standing do not want to completely abandon the premises.

Bert Naquin, also a new resident of Schriever, would like to repaint her family’s house on the Isle of Jean Charles, where she is spending her last nights.
Upon discovering the bedrooms and bathrooms of her new home, she was stunned. At 64, this is the first time that she is the sole owner of the house where she lives.

Yet Bert Naquin already speaks nostalgically of the Isle of Jean Charles. Even having taken up residence in Schriever, “the island will always be the home of my heart”, she swears.


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