Wednesday, September 17, 2008

After the Flood: In Louisiana, Diehards Cling to a Vanishing Isle

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. -- A few days after Hurricane Gustav, Pierre Naquin returned to this fragile vein of marshy land to find part of his roof torn off, his family's furniture, appliances and clothes soaked by beating rains, and black mud oozing under the house. Days later, Hurricane Ike hit the island on its way to Texas.

But as Mr. Naquin, a 67-year-old former tugboat captain, prepared for another slow cleanup, one thing was certain: He won't move. No matter how many times this happens. "This is where I was born. I'm gonna die here," he said.
Gustav Floods Louisiana Wetlands

Jacob Walker, showing his self-made tattoo of Louisiana, carries Braden Naquin in Isle de Jean Charles after Gustav hit the island.

Emergency officials face a number of questions in helping communities like Isle de Jean Charles. Among them: What should be done in wetlands that are disintegrating, or in locations where man-made protections are unlikely ever to spare people from storm damage, yet where many residents refuse to consider moving elsewhere?

With every hurricane, prospects of viable life on this exposed sliver of land -- and others like it nearby -- fade. Built over thousands of years by sediment spread by the Mississippi River during yearly floods, Louisiana's wetlands have been sinking into the Gulf of Mexico ever since the great river was imprisoned in high levees starting in the late 1920s and oil and gas companies began cutting channels through the wetlands.

Without the Mississippi's nourishing sediment and fresh water that once poured onto the edges of the coast, saltwater from the Gulf is eating into the sunken soil, killing off miles of tough marsh grasses and trees that once dissipated the massive surges of water pushed ahead of hurricanes. The once-thick ridge that built up along a bayou and created the island is "all eat up," Mr. Naquin said. "We don't get protected here no more."

Evacuations and flooding are a way of life in Isle de Jean Charles, a poor community of wooden houses and dilapidated shacks in Terrebonne Parish accessed by a narrow causeway that waves lap at on both sides. Once a rural paradise where cattle and pigs roamed, vegetables grew, and inhabitants lived off the land, today it is a finger of land just three feet above sea level where many residents live in poverty or on some form of government assistance.
[Isle de Jean Charles residents survey the damage in a flooded house three days after the storm.] Andy Levin for The Wall Street Journal

Isle de Jean Charles residents survey the damage in a flooded house three days after the storm.

The 9 feet of water, more or less, delivered by Ike was the third major flood here in three years. Increasingly, it seems likely that any major ocean storm moving west in the Gulf of Mexico will flood or wreck Isle de Jean Charles.
Brother Against Brother

Mr. Naquin's determination to stay pits him against his own brother. His ancestors -- Indians intermarried with French settlers -- were among the first people living on this ridge, in the 1800s. His father was a fisherman who trolled the waters around the island for shrimp, oysters and crabs. He and many of the island's 175 or so inhabitants are members of Indian tribes.

Many here fear that giving up the island would mean forfeiting their identity -- and the chance of winning federal recognition and financial aid as an Indian tribe. The groups are recognized as tribes by the state of Louisiana. But the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has so far declined to award federal recognition.

Six years ago, a cost-benefit analysis by the Army Corps of Engineers found that including the tiny island inside a new levee system would cost about $100 million. Resettling the whole community on higher ground would cost about $8 million.

Relocated residents were to have been allowed to maintain ownership of their land on the island, along with modest monthly royalties they currently get from nearby oil drilling, according to state officials.

Island residents rejected the relocation out of hand. The Rev. Roch Naquin, Pierre's 75-year-old first cousin, left the island as a child because Indians were excluded from local schools in the upper grades. He returned to retire in 1997. He maintains local officials were planning to turn the land over to oil companies or high-paying developers.

"This is a good fishing area," Father Roch says. "Developers are just waiting to come and build waterfront lots and make a fortune."

Local officials deny any such plan. Isle de Jean Charles, about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, shows no signs of attracting real-estate investors.
[Tribal leader Albert Naquin checks on the damage to a home.] Andy Levin for The Wall Street Journal

Tribal leader Albert Naquin checks on the damage to a home.

Albert Naquin, Pierre's brother and chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians, says the real corps plan was to "to let us drown." In 2002, he wrote a letter to the corps likening the island's exclusion from the levee system to the 1838 "Trail of Tears," the forced march of the Cherokee Indians more than 1,000 miles from the Southeastern U.S. to present-day Oklahoma. He pleaded for the federal government to build its levees around the island. Officials ultimately refused on the grounds that it would cost too much money.
Par for the Course?

"History is being relived all over again for the Indian community of the Island," wrote Chief Naquin, who had moved off the island in 1975 to escape having to drive on the flooded causeway on his way to and from work at a natural-gas company. "Indians were always being relocated to reservations by the white man."

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike have been enough to make Chief Naquin reconsider his opposition to moving. With the battle for hurricane protection levees lost, he says he's "wore out." "People's got mud in their homes," he says. "Why make them suffer if they want to go?"

He wants to persuade state and federal officials to make a relocation offer of new homes, a church and community center. Those who are unemployed should be given a year's pay and help finding a job, he says.

Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the tribe United Houma Nation, says, "We're not ready to concede that we can't rebuild our community. It's our heritage." But she adds that for those "who are tired of fighting" and want to move, "we're going to support them in that effort as well."

Carl Anderson, senior project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers' $968 million hurricane protection project from which the isle was excluded, says a relocation offer could be renewed.

But Chief Naquin knows that any offer of relocation will face fierce resistance. His brother Pierre, Father Roch and others remained determined to stay, even as the island was flooded again last week. People face dangers -- flooding, tornados, earthquakes -- no matter where they live, Father Roch says. Gustav bent back about a 3-foot piece of his tin roof, dousing treasured photos of his nieces and nephews. "I'm going to stay and keep fighting," he said.

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