C: Karen Apricot
C: Karen Apricot

A small community of French-speaking Native Americans, who have lived on the low-lying Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana for generations, have become America’s first official climate refugees.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe may have lived on the island for centuries but their home is slowly being submerged under the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

For a decade the community, which is some fifty miles south of New Orleans, has been looking for a new home. And now they have received just under $48 million from the federal government to help them relocate to “a resilient and historically significant community.”

In doing so, they have become the country’s first official climate refugees, leaving behind their home which is an integral part of their culture and heritage.

“All of our history, all of our ancestral line — that’s where our people are buried. That’s where our family members were born,” says island native Chantel Coverdelle. “They were raised there, and they raised their kids and grandkids. We’ve been there forever.”

Coverdale adds: “It’s sad not just for us, but for all the other communities that are facing this. There are lots of other communities facing the same issue, and it’s very disheartening to see.”

A toxic combination of sea-level rise caused by climate change, coastal erosion and sinking land caused by the oil industry means that living on the island is no longer tenable.

Over the decades, the oil companies have built some 10,000 miles of canals which in turn have allowed salt water to take over fresh water marshes, killing the plants that in turn helped keep the water at bay.

Corey Miller, the community engagement manager for the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana says “Not only are we losing land that provides a valuable buffer, we are gaining elevation of water, and the land we do have is subsiding.”

Over 1,900 square miles of land have vanished in the last 80 years according to Weather.com. That is equivalent of losing a football sized field every forty five minutes. The island used to be over eleven miles long. Today it is barely two.

“It kills me to see what has happened,” former Isle de Jean Charles resident Regee Dupre, says. “In my lifetime, I have witnessed a thriving community and culture reduced to a small community on life support.”

Dupre has recently moved his family to the town of Bourg, which is about 10 feet above sea level. He has bought his family time, but he does not see it as a permanent move due to sea level rise and climate change. “Where I live in Bourg, it might be 40 years until my children have problems,” he says.

The funding should allow the whole community to move to higher and dryer ground.

Within three years everyone should be gone, the land abandoned to the rising tides.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe may be the first to leave their homes in the US due to climate change, but they won’t be the last.