Hurricane Matthew is still impacting the southeast. Some rivers crested just this weekend and some parts of North Carolina are still underwater. But, some U.S. communities hit again and again find they’re in too deep to think about surviving in the long-term. One of them is an Indian tribe in Louisiana.
They’re part of a groundbreaking project to relocate together to higher ground at taxpayer expense. Some are calling them the first Climate Change refugees, but we found that other man-made factors could be largely to blame.
Albert Naquin: “We had chickens, we had pigs, we had cattle...”
Albert Naquin has lived here on Isle de Jean Charles his whole life: a sliver of an island in the South Louisiana bayou.
He’s chief of the island’s band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians who first settled here in the 1800’s. They grew into a fishing community that stayed self-sufficient for a century.
Today, the island is literally shrinking down to nothing before their eyes.
Sharyl Attkisson: “This used to be land?”
Albert Naquin: “This used to be land all - all along here.”
Comparing an aerial photo of the marshland from 1963 with a photo from 2008, most of the marshland has become water as the Gulf of Mexico swallowed up the land.
The tribe’s plight has been documented in numerous films, including “Can’t Stop the Water.”
Chief from documentary: “When I was growin’ up here, a hurricane, we used to ride ‘em out. And we didn’t worry about flood, we didn’t worry about the wind.”
Pat Forbes: “The community gets flooded more and more and more often, and its size has shrunk 98 percent from its original size, and the population has also shrunk along with it, because people have gotten tired of living with storms and floods on an annual basis.”
Pat Forbes heads up Louisiana’s Office of Community Development.
He’s helped the tribe win a first of its kind federal grant: $48 million tax dollars to move the last island inhabitants to higher ground, keeping them together as a group, preserving their culture.
Pat Forbes: “And the important part of that is that we are moving the community en mass; this hasn’t really been done before.”
Albert Naquin: “Hopefully we bring it back to where our kids, and all of the kids that are off the island would reunite and, you know then have a place to call home together.”
Some reporters have dubbed the Indian tribe the first “Climate Change Refugees.” But with millions of Americans living in coastal areas being drowned by water just like the Indian tribe, spending $48 million dollars on 60 people is bound to raise eyebrows.
Sharyl Attkisson: “There are a lot of people in trouble facing similar circumstances, and they may wonder, “Why these people” and not them for all this federal money?”
Pat Forbes: “Obviously federal money and all other kinds of money are limited, and so there was a competition, and we won that competition with a project based here.”
About 30 miles south is Leeville, a small but once-booming seafood industry and oil town, where Don Griffin has co-owned a Marina and Icehouse that’s been in business since 1977.
Don Griffin: “Before the only time we’d have water was for hurricanes. And now just your regular real high tides, that you have a large tidal movement, we got water constantly on the back dock, on the parking lot, you know?”
Leeville, too, has dwindled down to a skinny town just a mile long with a handful of year round residents. There’s no federal relocation project coming to their rescue though.
Don Griffin: “I’m glad that they’re able to get help, but I mean who decides who gets help and who doesn’t get help?”
Windell Curole: “Leeville used to be four feet higher just 100 years ago.”
Windell Curole manages the area’s manmade levee system, including this lock. It shelters the town north, but puts unlucky Leeville outside the hurricane protection system.
Windell Curole: “As we look to The South, these people are not on the flood protection.”
There's more to the story though. Curole and many local experts say there are other factors besides climate change to blame for Louisiana’s shrinking land – one of the biggest causes: oil companies.
Windell Curole: “South Louisiana since 1930, we’ve lost probably the size of Delaware since 1930: remarkable land loss.”
For decades, the Louisiana fishermen have co-existed with the oil industry. But, it turns out the oil company canals dredged for shipping and pipelines washed away protective marshland and brought the water ever closer to residents’ doorsteps.
Chris Brunet and his family are among the 60 or so tribal residents who live in the remaining homes on Isle de Jean Charles raised on stilts to try to stay above water.
Sharyl Attkisson: “How high have you seen the water get here?”
Chris Brunet: “On about four foot, about as high as this and this is without a hurricane.”
It’s no longer just the vicious hurricanes that cause problems. With widening canals dredged by oil companies now in Brunet’s backyard, even a strong high tide can flood the neighborhood.
One state study found the oil and gas companies are responsible for more than 90 percent of the island’s damage.
Sharyl Attkisson: “Do you see climate change as a bigger factor to the change in your way of life, or the oil companies?”
Albert Naquin: “I see the oil companies as the bigger factor of of the the, I guess the destruction of of our community. And that is because of all the canals they they dug out, allowing the saltwater to come in a lot faster, and go out a lot faster.”
Sharyl Attkisson: “So that’s not a climate change problem, that’s a company issue.”
Albert Naquin: “That’s not a climate change problem, that’s a company issue.”
Sharyl Attkisson: “It sounds almost as if federal taxpayers are picking up the tab for something the oil companies won’t pay for.”
Albert Naquin: “I agree with that. The U.S. government is picking up the tab for the oil companies.”
Curole argues the oil and gas industry has paid billions of dollars in federal taxes over the years. Now, he says, it’s time for the community to get some of that federal money back in terms of assistance.
Windell Curole: “Since 1995, the average is about $6 billion dollars that’s come from this little corridor that’s going to the federal government, and we’ve had basically zero of any of that money. So, it’s not just a one-way street.”
Whatever is to blame for the sinking of Isle de Jean Charles, the unprecedented project to move the entire town is moving forward. Supporters see it as a pilot program that other doomed coastal communities could follow.
Sharyl Attkisson: “Some people might think $48 million dollars to resettle 60 people is a lot of money.”
Pat Forbes: “It is a lot of money. It would be far less expensive for us to just buy people out, and give them each a new home up somewhere that’s safe. But again, we lose that resilience that being part of a community brings to a community. And that’s a thing that we think that culture - that’s a thing that we can’t afford to lose from our coastal communities across Louisiana and around the country.”
Albert Naquin: "We didn’t create this, but I think you know that our federal government should be responsible, or the oil companies should pitch in as well to help us get out of here.' 'So yea I think that the government and whoever created the pipeline canal should put a few pennies into that help us get out of here.' ' I guess to reunite our community and families, as it was when we was living here back when it first began.”