On the borders of the Louisiana coast, amid winding swamps, battered island highways and sunken land, a swath of new devastation for the neglected Indian tribal communities of this region.
Amid rapid land depletion, rising sea levels, and coastal erosion, Hurricane Ida struck the small communities of Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles, home to several coastal tribal groups in southeastern Louisiana.
The area suffered some of the worst destruction from the hurricane, with many who returned to inspect the damage described the Category 4 storm as the worst they had endured during lifetimes marked by extreme weather conditions.
Ida also revived questions that many people here have been grappling with for years: whether to stay or leave, retreat inland or stay to rebuild in an area already facing the brunt of the climate crisis.
ORn Isle de Jean Charles, reached on a causeway Surrounded by water which was built in 1953, the silence was broken only by the sound of cicadas and mosquitoes. Many houses had collapsed from their piles and more than half of the island’s homes had been completely destroyed. With no electricity or running water, it appeared that only two people, of the island’s roughly 40 remaining residents, were living there permanently.
Elizabeth and Edison Dardar Sr., both 72 years old and elderly from the island’s Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, returned a few days after the evacuation. They lived underneath their severely damaged house under a blue tarp covered by a tent. Propane and food were running low, but this was not the first time storms had destroyed her home. They hoped to rebuild.
Edison, a retired fisherman, sat with his shoulders high and recounted his best memories of the island, where his father and grandfather also lived.
“It is a good land,” he said. “People were gardening: green beans, lima beans, tomatoes and peas, but then the salty water started to rise.”
Despite the destruction here, there was no question that the couple, married for 53 years, would stay.
“People have been saying we shouldn’t be here for 50 years,” Elizabeth said. “But if we moved, other people would take our land.”
A few houses down the only road on the island, Chris Brunet, a councilor for the tribal government, had evacuated to the nearest city, Houma, also still without electricity. He returns when possible and tries to clean his house, which remains partially intact. But without power, the wheelchair lift is not operational, so it works under the stilts.
In 2016, Isle de Jean Charles became the first community in the United States to receive federal funds for an inland retreat due to the effects of the climate crisis. The island’s land mass has decreased by 98%, according to tribal council, amid flooding, erosion and expansion of the oil and gas infrastructure.
Brunet has opted for a new house inland, but will continue to live here as long as possible, regardless of Ida’s damage.
“I want to rebuild,” he said. “I want to keep it for as long as I can. Selling it or losing it surely won’t change what is happening there. It won’t stop how the environment is changing. “
Brunet had returned Wednesday to post a new sign at the foot of his property. It said “ISLE OF JEAN CHARLES IS NOT DEAD. CLIMATE CHANGE sucks ”.
As he completed it, in black marker against a bright yellow board, he reflected on the devastation: the houses, the trees, that he had known all his life now crushed one on top of the other.
“Climate change has forced us to make decisions that we never wanted to make,” he said. “For me, Ida is not the end, it is just a change.”
OROn the other side of the road from the island in the lower part of Pointe-aux-Chenes, there was equal devastation. The elders here assessed that only five of the 40 houses on the west bank of the swamp were still habitable. Many had not recovered from a beating last year during Hurricane Zeta.
At Earline Naquin’s motorhome, the remnants of the blue roofing sheets still in place after last year’s storm lay strewn on the muddy ground. The family had requested help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) the last time and was rejected. Another initial request after Ida had also been rejected, despite the total annihilation. They planned to appeal, but Earline, an elder of the tribe and sister of the chief of the Pointe-aux-Chien tribe, had already made up her mind. He would leave the community in which he had lived all his life and would look for a place more in the interior of the country to live permanently.
“We are getting older,” he said. “And we just don’t have the money to clean up and buy things to rebuild anymore.”
His sister and three brothers who live higher up the swamp also lost everything.
TOAs they crossed the swamp, Elders Donald and Theresa Dardar were receiving truckloads of donated aid, which flowed into tribal offices throughout the morning. Theresa remembered her youth, when she went fishing in the lakes with her husband, working as a deckhand. She returned to the same shrimp fishing grounds for the first time in decades recently and found them unrecognizable.
“It’s painful to watch,” he said. “All my marks were gone. Bays and lakes were defined. But they no longer existed. “
The tribal leaders here were concerned about the lack of assistance from the United States federal government. There has been little in-person contact from Fema as of Wednesday, necessary to unlock grant money to rebuild. And the coastal tribes here, though recognized by the state, They are not recognized by the US federal government., making it difficult to deliver federal aid to the community.
The lack of recognition felt particularly acute in a time of crisis.
For Donald, the disaster was becoming overwhelming. He pulled away when asked what his plans for the future were.
“Our roots are planted here,” Theresa said. “You know, after a storm, sometimes he gets discouraged and says he wants to leave. He said it this time too. But I know it’s just the pain In his heart, he couldn’t leave here. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism