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How Louisiana is relocating a community threatened by climate change

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An unprecedented move on the Gulf Coast may form the blueprint for a looming, 21st century challenge

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Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, a small coastal island in the Gulf of Mexico, is currently the site of a far-reaching experiment that may shape how the government, at every level, thinks about one of the looming issues of climate change: resettlement. With flooding threatening many parts of the coast, including massive population centers, the question of how the government manages the relocation of its citizens, as well as landmarks and historic sites, takes on added urgency.

The island, which has lost 98 percent of its landmass to flooding since 1955, became a testing ground for new approaches to resettlement due to the $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition, a government contest that funded 13 test programs across the nation. Louisiana’s $52 million grant will help pay for a voluntary relocation and resettlement plan for those living on the vanishing island, an unprecedented move.

The 400 residents directly affected by the rising seas around Isle de Jean Charles are mostly Native American members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe (as well as some members of the United Houma Nation, and unaffiliated Native Americans). While the first priority is to get everyone out of harm’s way—they will potentially be resettled inland at a site in nearby Houma, Louisiana—the relocation must also address the bigger questions of community design, ownership, and what happens to the island being left behind. Many have tossed around the term "climate refugees," but the state prefers to think of this move as an "organized, reasoned retreat from a coast that is going away," according to the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Unit.

The process of determining how, and exactly where, that move will happen, and how the island will be preserved, isstill being figured out. Funds have been allocated until 2022, and while state leaders don’t expect it to take that long, the extended timeline reflects the difficulties ahead.

"Our work is to make sure those whose properties are in the pathways of this environmental degradation can have a brighter future," says Matthew Sanders, Policy Advisor for the state’s Office of Community Development.

Curbed spoke with Sanders and Pat Forbes, Executive Director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, to learn how state planners are formulating a plan that could become a blueprint for coastal communities across the country, one that maintains connections to the water, yet recognizes its power to displace and disrupt.

"That’s where the tension lies," says Forbes. "You want to be close, but you want to be safe."

Changing the calculus of coastal moves

One of the key issues at stake is how to facilitate a move that alters traditional financial dynamics that make it difficult to leave coastal areas. "Normally, someone would be offered fair market value for their property, and then it becomes green space," says Sanders. "But, this then creates a burden on local government, which has to manage the property, and fair market value doesn’t really work, since if people know the area is under threat, sellers won’t get enough to start a new life elsewhere."

The buyout model that the country typically operates under also makes it hard to convince people to abandon their homes. Their goal with this process would be to create a new model with good options that can work for other coastal communities.

"We understand it’s a working coast," Sanders says about Louisiana, a point that could be applied anywhere. "We can’t retreat from it wholesale. We need to determine the areas we really need to preserve, and the ones that we need to move to higher and drier ground."

Putting a focus on the data to give residents a real choice

Louisiana was, in many ways, the obvious choice for this experimental program because the state has witnessed coastal erosion for decades. As Forbes says, for people living in the Mississippi Delta, which has seen the coast recede their entire lifetime, change isn’t all that rapid.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the state’s Coastal Protection and Recreation Authority has embarked on detailed analysis and created extensive maps and models of coastal erosion, providing local governments and property owners with accurate, actionable data to make big decisions about risk and relocation. With better coastal surge modeling data than anywhere else in the country, Louisiana can project risk out 50 years, making it easier to determine which communities may need to be relocated.

"We’re not a state that will ever walk into a community and say, ‘you need to move,’" says Sanders. "We believe that people with good options and good information make good decisions."

Creating a cultural survey and oral history of the community

Sanders and Forbes say that they don’t really know what the plan will look like because it’s based on extensive community feedback, which they’re just beginning to collect.

"Everything we do needs to be done through a participatory planning process," says Sanders. "It’s driven by the people living at this particular settlement."

The plan is vast. Right now, the state is focusing on initial outreach and needs assessments and taking a survey of the island. After that’s completed, they’ll bring in a planning team to interpret the data and make recommendations for the move. It may be 12 to 18 months before they’re at a place where they can put a shovel into the ground.

The final survey will include cultural and economic overviews and a detailed map utilizing ArcExplorer, a tool that lets researchers tag photos to specific geographic coordinates. In addition to creating a detailed physical overview, the survey will include a social and cultural history of the island, to help figure out what the clients want replicated in their new homes.

If this sounds like a massive oral history project, that’s because it is. Sanders says discussions about the concept of cultural transfer are common, and they foresee scenarios where they take what they learn about local history and memorialize within the new community.

"It really does become part and parcel of our job," says Forbes. "It’s important to get a community safely moved, and we’re obligated to preserve the culture of the community. Resilience is tied to cohesiveness, so we want to carry those aspects to the new community as explicitly as possible."

Devising a plan for landmarks, cultural markers, and community history

If devising a new housing plan for those living on the island is a challenge, then imagine the complications that come from preserving irreplacable landmarks.

"One of the things that has prevented residents from moving in the past is their connection to the land," says Forbes.

The island’s cemetery presents a representative case study of this thorny issue. Some have said they want to leave ancestors where they were buried, while others have suggested that moving their remains would be more appropriate.

According to Stephanie Meeks, the President and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, her organization and others like it have just begun to grapple with the challenges facing coastal communities nationwide. Preservationists are exploring ways to flood-proof buildings, as well as considering ways to move fragile landmarks, or even lift structures on hydraulic lifts (a strategy discussed for Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House in Illinois).

"Given the extent of coastal flooding, there may be things we need to let go of, which is a tough thing to wrestle with," says Meeks. "But we’re in a good position now to help communities save what they can and memorialize what they can’t."

These decisions will be local matters, and Forbes hopes that their work in Isle de Jean Charles can help create a toolbox that can be applied to the myriad communities that will begin to face their own unique climate challenges in the decades ahead.

"As much as we would like to be creating a model that’s applicable everywhere, every single community is going to be unique," he says. "We’re moving a small, tight-knit group, and there’s not a lot of businesses on the island. That won’t be the case for communities with a different makeup."