- The Washington Times
Thursday, July 8, 2021

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — Not a single house has been built five years after a nearly $50 million federal grant was issued to move this Gulf community threatened by rising sea levels. Officials say that will change by the end of the year, but people on the isolated island have doubts.

“It’s been 5½ years, and they’re just starting to put the foundation down for the first house,” said Johnny Tamplet, a 66-year-old island resident. “And this is supposed to be the showcase for moving a community that’s vanishing because of global warming?”

Mr. Tamplet was one of a handful of Isle de Jean Charles regulars gathered recently at Theo Chaisson’s marina on the eastern side of the thinning strip that juts into the Gulf of Mexico. With a vicious rain battering the wooden roof at volumes that made conversation difficult, the old-timers sipped bottled beer, peered at the stark natural beauty dotted with ramshackle houses and predicted the scene would be the same in one year just as it has for the past 31.

Officials with the Louisiana Office of Community Development who are handling the relocation say they never portrayed the project as a model for how societies might deal with communities predicted to submerge as warmer seas rise.

They say that the homes for 37 of the 40 Isle de Jean Charles households will be completed by next summer and that the project remains within its $48.3 million budget.

“I think it’s a fairly rational response to be skeptical of government,” said Pat Forbes, the office’s executive director.

Indeed, Isle de Jean Charles has been home to generations of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and the now-splintered United Houma Nation. It is hardly surprising that they would look askance at government programs, given the country’s history in dealing with American Indians.

“As Reagan said, ‘The scariest words in English are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,”’” Mr. Tamplet, the lone remaining resident who is not an American Indian, said as the others at the marina nodded assent.

In this case, however, those running the relocation project have stayed true to their word. They never cloaked their work as a blueprint for other communities facing lapping waters. They see it more as a pioneering effort.

“We never maintained this would be ‘the model’ — just that this was an experiment in how to do relocations. And all along, we’ve known that in the future we would find things we wanted to replicate and things we didn’t,” Mr. Forbes said. “We’re going to continue to do what we said we’d do and hope more and more people will take us up.”

At present, 37 of the 40 families living on Isle de Jean Charles have signed up for new homes in a nearby Terrebonne Parish subdivision being built from scratch. Another family has agreed to depart the vanishing marshland for a home outside the new development.

Mr. Forbes and his team have been increasingly successful in persuading residents to leave. Many told visiting Washington Times reporters going back to 2019 that they would never leave or sell their homes, almost all of which sit atop high pillars and support lattices.
A total of 40 homes will be turnkey ready by the end of next summer, the state says, but neither Mr. Tamplet, who said he built a subdivision in the private sector in less than two years, nor some other residents believe that promise.

Residents and some state officials also are puzzled by Terrebonne Parish’s decision to dump big rocks and create a kind of levee on the eastern strip of road that leads to Isle de Jean Charles and makes it, in fact, a peninsula.

“The water still seeps through the rocks, the road still floods whenever there’s a big south wind,” said Terry Adams, a New Orleans resident who keeps a shrimp boat in a nearby bayou and spends considerable time there. “And why are they doing that at all? Why make it easier to get out when they supposedly want people to leave?”

Terrebonne Parish officials did not respond to requests for comment about their project, its timetable and the expected cost. The Louisiana Office of Community Development said it is not involved in the rock barricade and is uncertain why it is being built.

Certainly, the isle is vulnerable. Although they have a fire station, residents are miles away from gas, groceries and — despite some amusing resident posting “Isle de Jean Social Club” on a dilapidated shack — nightlife.

A conspiracy theory that private money is somehow at the root of the relocation effort has long been whispered amid the high swamp grass surrounding the waterways and skeletal gray oaks that dot the Isle de Jean Charles landscape. Mr. Forbes and others are exasperated by the seemingly undying idea that someone is planning a resort or deluxe fishing and game camps on the remote strip about 90 minutes southwest of New Orleans.

‘The New Isle’

The relocation saga began in January 2016 when the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the Louisiana Office of Community Development $48.3 million in community redevelopment block grants.

That amounts to more than $1 million per property owner on Isle de Jean Charles. The expense seems prohibitively high for massive relocations if global warming predictions materialize.

Although the state claims to have ample funds, it has taken more than a half decade to break ground on “the New Isle” because building a subdivision while working out arrangements with year-round residents on Isle de Jean Charles has been daunting, state officials say.
The state also has to work out issues with the desires and reluctance of the largely American Indian population.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, led by Chief Albert Naquin, has been on board with the project for years. Mr. Naquin blamed unspecified partisan divisions for the delays.

Many United Houma Nation members say the state has ignored their concerns and moved in opaque ways throughout the process. At the first project planning meeting in 2017 at the Montegut Recreation Center, a Terrebonne Parish gymnasium, most in the crowd were not Isle de Jean Charles residents. An angry confrontation erupted between Mr. Chaisson and state officials.

“You had a gymnasium full of people who didn’t even live on the island,” United Houma Nation tribal administrator Lanor Curole told The Times. “Who are all these people making decisions who have no skin in the game?”

Differences between the tribe and the government run deeper than the relocation project, said Lora Ann Chaisson, who owns several Isle de Jean Charles properties, including her father’s marina.

The tribe says Isle de Jean Charles should have been included in a federal-state improvement effort to the Gulf levee system that began 2 miles west of the strip. The project would have helped protect the isle from hurricanes and other storms sweeping ashore.

Few residents say global warming is the real culprit for their vanishing land. They blame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been diverting the natural course of the Mississippi River through the flood control Atchafalaya Basin Project since the 1940s and has deprived the island and nearby coastline of fresh sediment.

In addition, oil and gas exploration led to the north/south canal that runs by the marina. The canal acts like a syringe, bringing in saltwater to eat away at the land, Ms. Chaisson said.

Residents are simmering over what they consider strong-arm tactics to get them off the island. Atmos Energy stopped providing gas to the strip, forcing everyone to turn to electricity or propane.

What’s more, the parish will no longer sell lots that have fallen into foreclosure. Residents who sign mortgage agreements for homes on “the New Isle” are forbidden from making repairs on their current property in excess of $1,200.

That restriction is designed to discourage permanent residence on Isle de Jean Charles, but it does not apply to camp owners — the weekend warriors who come to the peninsula to fish. Some residents see that as a kind of favored status to those whose interest in the property is recreational.

“To us, that is a justice issue because by the repair restrictions you are essentially not allowing the Native Americans to enjoy the same recreational activities open to White people,” Ms. Curole said.

In some nearby coastal communities, more deluxe camps have sprouted in the past few years. The rock strip and fishing docks that the state and parish have built on the western edge of the access road are renewing notions that a similar master plan is in the works for Isle de Jean Charles even though no private interest has been identified.

“They say they won’t fix the road, they won’t come out, they’re going to take away services. Who knows where these rumors get started, but they’re out there,” Ms. Chaisson said.

The Chaissons aren’t irate that the state has not offered a dollar to them for the multiple lots they own on Isle de Jean Charles because they have no intention or desire to depart, Ms. Chaisson said. They have made improvements to the marina’s boat launch and driveway, and Mr. Chaisson said he does not expect his business to end when “the New Isle” is completed.

“I expected to be there two years ago,” Mr. Tamplet said.

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

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