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An island vanishes

Lisa MathoferMay 9, 2016

Isle de Jean Charles is a coastal island near the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana. Climate change is causing the island to vanish under the waves and so residents are getting ready to move to higher ground.

USA Louisiana Isle de Jean Charles Wohnhaus
Image: W. Billiot

Isle de Jean Charles is one of many islands in the swampy coastal margins of the US state of Louisiana. The island's name is a reminder that Louisiana was once a colony of France before Napoleon sold it to the US in 1803. It's composed mostly of silt washed down the Mississippi River over millennia, although the current mouth of the river is miles to the east.

"I got standing on my parents' back porch. And when I was young the field was full of trees," islander Wenceslaus Billiot remembers. "Now, you stand on this back porch and you see nothing but water."

The 64-year-old was born and raised on Isle de Jean Charles. His family lived on this island for eight generations. Like most of the island's residents, Billiot is a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, which has lived on the island since the beginning of the 19th century.

USA Louisiana Isle de Jean Charles
Wenceslaus Billiot with Chris Brunet from the tribal council and tribal chief Albert Naquin on the only road that connects the island to the mainlandImage: W. Billiot

In the mid-1970s, about 100 families lived here. But right now, there are only 27 families left, and they'll eventually have to leave as well. That's because the island is slowly but surely sinking into the sea.

In fact, 98 percent of the island's surface has already vanished. With each passing hour, the waves lick onto more of the muddy land, claiming an area nearly the size of a football field.

"It's sad to see the island go, the place where I was born and raised," Billiot says. "But you know, there's not too much we can do about it."

Saltwater floods submerge the island

For years, the oil industry has been crisscrossing Louisiana's coastal swamps, leaving miles-long canals behind. Salt water from the ocean has been able to enter through these canals, damaging the region's ecosystem.

"As the saltwater intrusion comes into the delta, it kills plants and trees," says Kristina Peterson, a scientist at the region's Lowlander Center who has advised the local residents for years. "The roots are no longer there and can't hold the soil, and so erosion occurs."

Without forest cover, the lowland islands are exposed to erosion and are unprotected from recurring storms. And with global warming causing the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to thermally expand and sea level to rise, Louisiana's coastal swamps and islands are increasingly being flooded.

USA Louisiana Isle de Jean Charles Wohnhaus
Many resients of Isle de Jean Charles have to leave their homes and move inlandImage: W. Billiot

Wenceslaus Billiot has witnessed his island disappear. "When I was growing up, the island was a lot wider than what it is now. There were a lot more trees. Now the island is just a narrow strip. We used to have cattle, we used to farm corn, rice, and all kind of beans. But now it can't grow anymore."

Powerful storms, rising sea levels

Island residents have tried everything to save their home. They have repeatedly planted shrubs or cypress trees to give the land a bulwark against erosion, but the intruding saltwater has defeated their attempts.

By now, many residents have given up life on the island. Wenceslaus Billiot is one of them. He left the island in 1985 with his family after a hurricane wrecked their house. They now live 40 kilometers from the island, in Houma on the mainland.

"We didn't want to rebuild the house again because if another hurricane were to come, we'd lose it again," he says.

USA Louisiana Isle de Jean Charles Wohnhaus
When Hurricane Lee swept over the island in September 2011, many houses were left flooded and destroyedImage: W. Billiot

His parents still live in the house where he grew up. Billiot says they want to stay there as long as possible. But the trip between the island and the mainland is getting more and more difficult and eventually they'll have to move inland, too.

"A few days ago we wanted to visit them by car, but the road to the island was flooded," Billiot's daughter Chantel Comardelle says. The two-lane, two-mile-long island road is the only connection from Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland, and seawater laps directly at its edges.

It's about a half hour drive from Isle de Jean Charles to the nearest towns on the mainland. Locals make the journey on a daily basis, to go to school, church or to buy groceries. That is if the road isn't flooded. In 2011, the state of Louisiana repaired the road and built dykes along its length. But it wasn't enough.

"The state doesn't want to put money into the island to save it. They should have started years ago," Billiot says.

Moving the residents, reuniting the tribe

The only solution for the people left on Isle de Jean Charles is to leave the island. And together with the Lowlander Center, they've come up with a plan. Island residents are to be granted 500 hectares of land in the mainland town of Houma. That's enough room for about 100 families.

USA Louisiana Isle de Jean Charles Wohnhaus
The only road that connects the island to the mainland is often floodedImage: W. Billiot

Both the families that still live on the island now and those that have already left are meant to build new homes in Houma in an effort to reunite the tribe and ensure the survival of the tribe's identity and culture.

In January, the state of Louisiana promised $50 million for the resettlement project, which is suppose to begin in 2022.

Wenceslaus Billiot says that's too long a wait. In mid-May, the leaders of his tribe will meet with representatives of the US government in the White House in Washington D.C. to make them aware of the tribe's predicament.

"It's scary, we're worried about our family and struggle for help. The state could work with us even more cooperatively, we feel they're too slow," Billiot's daughter Comardelle says.

Global climate agreement: Too late for many regions

Last December, the world's nations, including the United States, agreed to a climate change plan to limit the rise of the global average temperature to maximum 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But for Isle de Jean Charles, it'll be too late.

"There are places around the world that cannot be saved, even if there is a new climate change agreement," Billiot says, adding that he hopes the fate of his island and its residents will gain some attention and will help motivate the actions needed to protect other endangered lowland territories and the people who live there.