Chris Brunet points to the stumps of dead trees throughout his yard. “This whole place looked completely different when I was growing up,” he says. “There’s not much left now.”
Brunet’s house on Isle de Jean Charles, a shrinking sliver of an island 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, was surrounded by towering oaks before deadly saltwater encroached on the land. Today his trees—and most of his neighbors—are gone.
Brunet, age 55, is a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, an Indigenous tribe that has lived on the island for more than two centuries. Since the 1950s the island has lost 98 percent of its land to subsidence and saltwater intrusion. Despite this loss and the dozens of hurricanes that have brought massive flooding throughout the decades, the tribe has always managed to rebuild and stay put.
DOCUMENTARY: THE LAST HOLDOUTS
But in 2020 five major storms slammed the Louisiana coast, the most ever in a single season. For many living here, this unprecedented barrage was a final warning. Now tribal members, including Brunet, have decided to leave. “It has been a decision that I hesitated to make until the last day,” he says.
The state of Louisiana has been preparing for this day, too. It is using a $48 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build 150 homes in Schriever, a town 40 miles inland. Residents of Isle de Jean Charles are guaranteed a new home there—but to get it, they have to give up their residency on the island.
All but four families have taken the deal, the tribe’s chief Albert Naquin says. The development in Schriever is scheduled to open by the end of 2021. This will mark the end of the tribe’s presence on the coast. And that loss is very personal.
“It’s sad, and I feel I’m letting my people down,” Naquin says. “But there’s nothing we can do.”
Isle de Jean Charles is an important foreshadowing of what will happen to coastal communities globally, researchers warn. Sea levels are rising by an average of about 3.5 millimeters (0.14 inch) per year. And the problem is getting worse, according to Tulane University geology professor Torbjörn Törnqvist, who has studied coastal erosion in the Mississippi Delta.
“All the predictions are that it's going to ramp up further in the future—now it's going to depend on human actions, how much it's going to ramp up,” Törnqvist says. “But there are some countries that will disappear altogether.”