- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2019

ISLE de JEAN CHARLES, La. — On this shrinking strip of marsh in the Gulf of Mexico, many of the dozens who still live here have no intention of leaving.

“Am I going to stay?” said Johnny Tamplet, 64, who bought property on the isle a decade ago after coming to it for years to fish and enjoy its stark beauty. “I didn’t buy my house to come and live down here. I bought my house to live and die here. This is my paradise.”

But the land is dying, too, say environmentalists and state officials, who have pushed to create a “managed retreat” from the island as it slips beneath the creeping saltwater.

Nineteen families remain on the land, which is connected to the mainland by a ribbon of road frequently submerged during storms and which has been gradually devoured by the advancing Gulf, which has carved the island down from 22,000 acres to 320.

Island residents are something of the proverbial American canaries in the global warming mine, providing an early test of what it could be like to have to move entire communities to escape rising sea levels.

Louisiana, assisted by federal taxpayers, in December bought land about 40 miles north of the isle in Terrebonne Parish, designating the site for relocation of those who are willing to go.

The state released its latest relocation action plan and opened public comment on it this month, giving residents a couple of weeks to weigh in on their future as construction begins on homes, workforce training facilities and business startups designed to re-create lives as best as possible.

“As we move forward in creating this new community, we will naturally adjust our plans to remain responsive to and adapt to the emerging needs of the island residents while continuing to progress toward the program’s goals,” said Pat Forbes, executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development.

The Office of Community Development has been the lead player on the project since 2016, when it won a $48.3 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would put the relocation cost per family at $2.5 million. That is a foreboding price for taxpayers should the most alarming global warming models prove true.

“They’re going to spend $50 million to move a few of us,” Mr. Tamplet said. “It’s insane.”

Mr. Tamplet and a handful of bayou natives were enjoying the sunset and beers recently at the Isle de Jean Charles Marina, a kind of boat launch and elevated bar that fits the island’s curious mix of ramshackle and sublime.

The marina’s 82-year-old proprietor, Theo Chaisson, is a member of the United Houma Tribe who was born in a shack across the road. When he was a boy, his family used a boat to take him to school or go to the supermarket.

Today, in addition to the marina, the isle has a fire station, but otherwise it’s a collection of wooden homes in various states of decay and on various heights of stilts.

“Nobody has moved out of here because the island is sinking,” Mr. Chaisson said, although his family departed for Houma decades ago and he acknowledged that few young people still populate it.

Many of the Isle de Jean Charles residents are American Indians who have been here for generations, representing the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees and the United Houma Nation.

For the most part, tribal leaders have signed on to the relocation project, although they, like Mr. Forbes, insist that no resident will be removed from the island against their will.

Just when they will be forced to make up their minds is not clear.

“That question will be answered by nature and the next time a big storm floods out the island,” Mr. Forbes said.

For now, the state will not set a deadline for new home applications.

“We want to leave the door open for them to take advantage of resettlement,” he said. “If a big storm comes and waxes the island, we don’t want them to be shut out of a chance at a new place.”

One complication is that most of the homes on the island fall below the state’s $75,000 homestead exemption, meaning they don’t pay any property tax. Owners usually don’t have mortgages, and most are uninsured.

Once resettled, residents could face all of those challenges. The state is trying to figure out those complications, suggesting options such as rental agreements or leases to ease the new burdens.

The state is also trying to figure out what to do with the island itself. It would be unfair to allow residents to take taxpayer money to resettle only to maintain continued claims to the island, state officials say.

But the state also said there’s an “important sense of place” that residents should be allowed to maintain. Under the current proposal, they would be allowed access to their homes, but couldn’t live in them or develop them.

Louisiana’s coast has not been battered by a huge storm since 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped swaths of its eastern and western sides apart in the space of a month.

The clock on the HUD money will run out in 2022, according to state officials.

Comments now being solicited apply to more of what Mr. Forbes termed the “vertical” development, as opposed to “horizontal” ones such as roads, sewerage and drainage, the plan for which is now under environmental review.

A solar energy field is planned, which is supposed to help lower residents’ energy bills, Mr. Forbes said.

While the comment period ends April 23, the timetable for the entire project is shrinking. Mr. Forbes estimated the project is between 25 and 30 percent done, and officials hope to have people in new homes by the end of 2020.

And all of that, he insists, without more public money.

“That’s it, and we’re confident in our budget,” he said.

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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