The First Official Climate Refugees in the U.S. Race Against Time

A Native American tribe struggles to hold on to their culture in a Louisiana bayou while their land slips into the Gulf of Mexico.

A shot rings out across what remains of Isle de Jean Charles as the sun drops behind the gnarled skeletons of what once were massive oak trees. Rifle in hand, Howard Brunet, 14, stands on the deck of his uncle’s stilted house looking down at the rabbit he shot on the far edge of the property. His sister Juliette, 13, leaps down the stairs to retrieve the body—since neither of the boys will touch it. Next comes rabbit stew. It’s a normal evening at the Brunet household. The kids are tough. The water forces them to be.

“We have to be careful with the .22; we need those shells for food,” their uncle, Chris Brunet, who is raising Juliette and Howard, said as the siblings set out empty laundry-detergent containers for target practice with their cousin Reggie Parfait, 13, who lives down the road.  

Since 1955, the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe has lost 98 percent of its land to the encroaching Gulf waters. Of the 22,400-acre island that stood at that time, only a 320-acre strip remains. The tribe’s identity, food, and culture have slowly eroded with the land.  

In response, on January 21, 2016, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the tribe $48 million to relocate through the National Disaster Resilience Competition. But moving isn’t a simple solution. (See video of the sinking island.)

“We don’t have time,” tribal chief Albert Naquin, who spent the last 15 years advocating to relocate his people, said. “The longer we wait, the more hurricane season we have to go through. We hate to let the island go, but we have to. It is like losing a family member. We know we are going to lose it. We just don’t know when.”

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws are receiving funding, but the fight to save their culture is not over. The federal grant will help save the tribe from the eroding landscape, but addressing the effects of cultural erosion is far more difficult. 

“Once our island goes, the core of our tribe is lost,” said Chantel Comardelle, the deputy tribal chief’s daughter. “We’ve lost our whole culture—that is what is on the line.” 

According to JR Naquin, a member of the tribe, the island once housed about 300 people, but only about 60 remain today. Much of the tribe’s heritage and traditions have faded away because the people have been scattered by land loss and rising waters. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws haven’t been able to hold a powwow since before Hurricane Katrina hit over 10 years ago. (Learn more about rising seas.)

Living off the Land

For generations, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws have sustained themselves off of the island’s natural resources. But today, residents say the land loss has made that untenable. 

“When the Great Depression hit, we didn’t know because we would just trade with each other,” says Wenceslaus Billiot, Sr., who was born, raised, and married on the island. He and his wife of 69 years, Denecia Billiot, raised their children there, but their grandchildren and great-grandchildren no longer consider it a viable place to live. 

Chris Brunet is the eighth generation in his family to live on the island as a member of the tribe. In one generation, “this island has gone from being self-sufficient and fertile to relying on grocery stores,” he says. “What you see now is a skeleton of the island it once was.” 

The land is disappearing into the Gulf because of a combination of coastal erosion, rising sea levels, lack of soil renewal, and shifting soil due to dredging for oil and gas pipeline placement. The soil that remains is nutrient-depleted because the protective marshlands that once served as the first line of defense against saltwater intrusion for the Louisiana coastline are disappearing at a rate of the area of a football field an hour.

As the effects of climate change transform coastal communities around the world, the people of Isle de Jean Charles will be only 60 of the estimated 200 million people in coastal communities globally who could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change. 

Theresa Billiot, living on the island with her parents, Wenceslaus and Denecia, in order to help take care of them, commutes nearly an hour each way to her job at a grocery store in Houma, Louisiana. Her small garden between their house and the levee is one of the only remnants of the days when the tribe could live off of the land. In the distance, three oil storage tanks are visible reminders of how nearby underground pipelines have contributed to the shifting and sinking land.

“It is hard for everyday Americans to see and understand climate change,” Comardelle said. “They don’t see land that was once there disappear.” 

The island, which is thought to have been named after the father of a Frenchman who married into the tribe in the 1800s, is located deep in the southern bayous of Louisiana, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of New Orleans and 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Gulf of Mexico.  

Only Way Out

The only way into or out of Isle de Jean Charles is on Island Road. In 1953, the year the road was built, land and thick marsh surrounded the road. At that time, tribal members could traverse the land around the road to hunt and trap. 

But erosion is eating away at the road today. Marks of sand and debris indicate where the water covers the road during high tide. If strong southerly winds persist across the island, the road will flood even on a cloudless day.  

Chris Brunet says he believes that when the bayou was dredged to build up the foundation for the road, that process exposed the road and the island to more erosion.  

“The more avenues you create for the water, the more she’s coming,” Chris Brunet said. “It’s a powerful thing.” (Watch how the Gulf oil spill destroyed a different island.)

Every time a strong storm heads toward the island, residents have a small window of time to decide whether they will evacuate. If they don’t immediately decide to leave, their only choice will be to stay on the island and ride out the storm. Once the storm arrives, the road out of the island will be flooded.

“It takes a lot of prayer to live down here,” Theresa Handon, Chris Brunet’s sister, said. “I think, ‘Please God, no more storms,’ but I know it’s going to come.” 

With every storm that hits the island comes a chance that another home will be destroyed. Louisiana contains 40 percent of the nation’s wetlands, but each year an amount of land larger than the size of Manhattan is sapped from the state's coastline. The water has now overtaken many structures that were once a part of the community. Sea level rise, shifting soils, and several hurricanes have led to the abandonment and eventual demise of what once were people’s homes. 

“Climate change didn’t happen overnight, so we can’t fix it overnight,” Comardelle said. “What we can do is make the best of what we’ve been given and adapt.”

Many of the tribal members who remain on the island despite the rising waters are those who can’t afford any other option. Most of those who have left the island remain in the tribe but are spread throughout Louisiana.

“The tribe has physically and culturally been torn apart with the scattering of members,” the resettlement proposal submitted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Competition states. “A new settlement offers an opportunity for the tribe to rebuild their homes and secure their culture on safe ground.” (Learn about other sinking islands.)

Beacon of Hope

“We know we aren’t the only ones,” Comardelle says. “If we can do this, not only for our people, but to be a beacon of hope for other communities is important.  This is not just about us.” 

The resettlement proposal argues that Isle de Jean Charles "is ideally positioned to develop and test resettlement adaptive methodologies," something that is badly needed around the world. As such, the plan aims to move families to a historically contextual and culturally appropriate community.

As hurricane season looms, the tribe hopes to be spared long enough to have time for relocation; however, with questions from the state about how to allocate the money, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw culture hangs in the balance.

“To stay here would have been my first choice, but common sense tells me that if I don’t take advantage now and a hurricane comes and destroys everything, then where will I go?” said the Reverend Roch Naquin, a resident who grew up on the island and was a trapper until going to seminary school. 

“This is not just about resettling the community on the island,” Comardelle said.  “It’s reuniting the community that is left.”

Having already lost so much of their land and their tribal heritage to the water, relocation is not just crucial for their personal safety but also for the longevity of their culture and traditions. 

“At one time, water was our life and now it’s almost our enemy because it is driving us out, but it still gives us life,” Comardelle said. “It’s a double-edged sword. It’s our life and our death.”

Carolyn Van Houten is an award-winning photojournalist. Follow her on Instagram.

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