Section 3.4: Community Relocation

The speed at which coastal land loss is occurring in Southeast Louisiana means that no solution can protect everyone in the near term. There are large portions of the Gulf Coast that are likely to experience unsustainable degradation at the hands of sea level rise, subsidence, and erosion, no matter what forward- thinking coastal restoration plans we might develop. For this reason, the relocation of human populations has become an unfortunate element of our adaptations to the rapidly disappearing coastline.

Before discussing this issue further, let me be clear about how tragic this option is: for innumerable generations, human groups have inhabited the Gulf Coast of Southeast Louisiana and have developed deeply meaningful attachments to this unique physiographic and environmental region. Today, it is a hotspot of cultural and linguistic diversity in a time when such diversity is rapidly disappearing worldwide. Furthermore, the ancestors of modern Native American tribes, such as the Coushatta, Houma, Chitimacha, Biloxi and Choctaw, have occupied this region for thousands of years and still maintain a profound spiritual connection with the landscape and its creatures. The separation of any individual from a place with which they have built an attachment of such profound emotional depth is a great casualty.

Therefore, Louisiana is faced with the terrible reality of balancing the wellbeing of its most at-risk coastal residents with their deep attachment to place. The first of Louisiana’s coastal communities with concrete plans for relocation is Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish. This community is populated by the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and was settled in the early 19th century. Since 1955, Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98% of its land surface due to sea level rise, subsidence, and erosion (Davenport & Robertson, 2016). In the last decade, it has become evident that remaining on Isle de Jean Charles is an untenable future for its residents and planning for relocation has begun.

Under the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project, the State of Louisiana and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have been involved in making plans to relocate the entire community to a more stable position on the landscape; but a place that would be culturally suitable for maintaining the life ways and traditions of the Isle de Jean Charles band. The proposed resettlement site is around 30 miles to the north and would provide a relatively similar landscape to the one that has been present historically on Isle de Jean Charles itself.

The loss of land on Isle de Jean Charles has already created serious social problems for its residents over time. As people have been forced to leave, the cohesion and identity of the Isle de Jean Charles band has deteriorated. Long-standing social structures and networks of relationships have started to disintegrate as residents have departed. Now, the residents have widely mixed opinions about how, or whether, to proceed with the settlement relocation plan. While some favor the total relocation of the settlement and an attempt to replicate the current Isle de Jean Charles community as closely as possible, others see the separation from the current coastal wetland context as fatal to the identity of the band (Wendland, 2016). These kinds of social tension only scratch the surface of the human costs associated with the disappearance of coastal land surfaces and the attempts to resettle the populations that live on them.

While Isle de Jean Charles is likely to be the first coastal community of its kind in Louisiana to be resettled, it is certainly not going to be the last. The 2017 Louisiana Coastal Master Plan identifies 13 other communities in Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Barnard Parishes that face the prospect of potential relocation given the likelihood of extreme flooding over the next 50 years. These relocations may thus effect many thousands of people, having an immense impact on the social fabric of coastal Southeast Louisiana.

As with Louisiana’s sediment diversion projects, plans to resettle threatened communities raise fundamental ethical questions about the nature of community, culture, justice, the property rights of individuals, and the authority of state and federal agencies. Some coastal residents fear ulterior motives in resettling communities in order to make way for new industrial economic activities near shore in the Gulf of Mexico—a view that is unfortunately based on a real history of discrimination and environmental injustice in our region. Once again, there are no easy answers to these questions, though it seems likely that community resettlement will become an increasingly important and prevalent part of our strategies for coping with land loss along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana.

Go to: Section 3.5: Confronting Sea Level Rise