ISLE de JEAN CHARLES, La. — This spit of land in the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t have mansions or any other outward trappings of wealth; indeed, it doesn’t even boast much land anymore. But that makes it a remarkably pricey piece of real estate.
Battered by storms and less buffered from the elements because of vanished barrier islands in the Gulf, the once-thriving Isle de Jean Charles has shrunk to less than 320 acres.
Louisiana, with federal backing, is trying to relocate the roughly 100 people who remain on Isle de Jean Charles, a largely American Indian community wedded to the outdoors bayou lifestyle.
The price tag for the project hovers around $50 million, meaning taxpayers are spending roughly a half million dollars per person for relocation.
These numbers could prove haunting if climate change predictions come true and coastal communities need to flee rising sea levels.
“The next storm could come and wipe out all the housing. The citizens will have to go then, and that’s the real goal here: to get them out of harm’s way,” said Thomas Dardar Jr., principal chief of the United Houma Nation tribe.
Some 10 families on Isle de Jean Charles are members of the tribe, and not all are keen on the idea of departing.
Environmentalists say Isle de Jean Charles is a test case for “climate refugees” as scientists try to predict how long they have until the island disappears.
To be sure, other factors have contributed to the shrinking isle. Louisiana’s lost land is also the product of various levee construction projects, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ redirecting the flow of the mighty Mississippi and decades-old energy exploration efforts.
Regardless, the receding shoreline is real.
Even if only some of the most alarmist predictions come true, the loss of land could require relocation on a massive scale. The figures associated with Isle de Jean Charles stands as a case study in what scientists call “managed retreat.”
If such a retreat is replicated nationally, the cost would be more than $2 trillion for the lower-end predictions of land loss offered by the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In Louisiana, the re-created community will be some 40 miles northwest, though still in Terrebonne Parish southwest of New Orleans near the Gulf of Mexico. The project’s cost is largely borne by a $48.3 million grant that Louisiana earned in a competitive process through the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The resettlement isn’t forced, and hardy bayou dwellers insist they aren’t going anywhere.
Edison Dardar Jr., a relative of the chief’s and a member of a family that has called Isle de Jean Charles home for generations, said he has no intention of departing the only life he has ever known or desired. Many Dardars lie at rest in the strip’s tiny cemetery, another bond to the land that state officials acknowledge they cannot relocate.
The process began in 2016, and the roughly 500-acre planned community is still maneuvering through environmental and other regulations, said Pat Forbes, executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, whose disaster recovery unit is handling the resettlement. The state remains hopeful it can break ground this year and denies reports that people will not take possession of new homes until 2022.
Mr. Dardar initially was miffed that the resettlement effort seemed focused on the other tribe on Isle de Jean Charles — the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw — at the expense of the Houma. But those concerns have been allayed despite what Mr. Dardar described as “outside interference.” Today, the tribes and the state appear to be in agreement.
Reports have ascribed additional costs to the project, in one case $62 million, but neither Mr. Dardar nor state officials know where that number originated. Louisiana officials reject claims that tens of millions more will be needed.
Some sticker shock is understandable, Mr. Forbes said, but the Isle de Jean Charles project is the first of its kind. Consequently, some costs associated with designing the blueprint would not have to be repeated in subsequent moves.
Some Pacific Northwest and Alaskan communities are now bearing or anticipating costs. As with Isle de Jean Charles, Alaska has American Indian communities involved and the costs are enormous.
Figures for infrastructure such as sewerage, water, drainage, community centers and schools are still only the price of moving households. If coastal areas with large infrastructure and commercial enterprises also have to be moved — many of those have logically grown around ports — then the cost to government would become prohibitive, said Alexander Kolker, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Tulane University who specializes in coastal research.
The issue of the American Indian population is another complicating factor. The goal in Louisiana was to offer the tribes an intact community. The project’s website says that “the resettlement of Isle de Jean Charles must protect the island’s American Indian culture and support future generations.”
Presumably, neighborhoods of less-protected or historically abused residences would find government less-charitable about picking up the tab.
“I guess the cost/benefit ratio will have to come into play,” Mr. Dardar said when asked whether other Gulf communities will face similar problems. “But this is a unique personal life, a unique culture, and I don’t think a lot of people have sat down and put a cost to that.”
Exactly who will own the homes is also an open question and one with repercussions beyond Isle de Jean Charles. If taxpayers bear the brunt of relocation costs, does the state own the homes? Neither Mr. Dardar nor the Office of Community Development was able to answer.
But that’s a squabble for down the road. At the moment, the idea of who will be offered passage off the ribbon of road — always submerged during major storms — that connects Isle de Jean Charles with the mainland appears to be resolved.
Earlier discussions centered on whether all local members of the Houma and the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes could move to the new grounds or only those whose homes are threatened by saltwater. For now, state officials said, they are focused on those who reside on the diminishing Isle de Jean Charles.
“The vast majority of folks want to live in unthreatened circumstances,” Mr. Forbes said. “We are offering them the option of finding a new house; we can get them a new house. But a small number insist they don’t want to leave Isle de Jean Charles under any circumstances, and I take them at their word.”
Mr. Dardar said that word will change when the ocean moves past the fringe of his yard and reached his front door.