On January 21, the Obama Administration made an unprecedented move to help a community severely impacted by climate change when it offered $48 million to help a tribe in Louisiana relocate away from its disintegrating island home. Since 1955, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians have lost 98 percent of the island they have lived on since the mid-19th century. Located just 50 miles south of New Orleans in the Louisiana Bayou, the island has been relentlessly diminished by a combination of sea level rise, land subsidence, decreasing sediment deposit from the Mississippi River, and oil and gas development.

The $48 million grant, provided by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Rockefeller Foundation's National Disaster Resilience Competition, will fund both the tribe and the Lowlander Center, a nonprofit that supports low-land communities affected by sea level rise. "This award will allow our Tribe to design and develop a new, culturally appropriate and resilient site for our community, safely located further inland," said Chief Albert White Buffalo Naquin. The Lowlander Center and a team of nationally-recognized experts will be partnering with the tribe to help with the relocation. Pat Forbes, the Center's executive director, stated, "Together, we'll be creating a model for resettlement of endangered coastal communities throughout the United States."

In a Facebook post, the tribe explained that its new settlement will be a "living model of community cultural resilience, disaster and climate change mitigation, green building practices, environmental stewardship, and sustainable economic development." The new settlement will have a health clinic, food market, and an outlet to sell indigenously-produced products. The tribe hopes its resettlement will serve as a resource and example to other communities, both nationally and internationally, which face similar threats.

The Isle de Jean Charles tribe has been working to relocate for the past 13 years, in part through the tireless advocacy of Chief Naquin. In 2010 the tribe was the subject of a documentary called Can't Stop the Water, which looked at how residents on the Isle de Jean Charles adapted to climate change impacts over a three-year period.

In 2015, EESI held a Congressional briefing on their plight. The briefing, What if the Water Can't be Stopped?, was held in partnership with the Isle de Jean Charles tribe and centered on its experiences. At the event, JR Naquin, standing in for Chief Albert Naquin, explained that since 2002, two-thirds of the 325 tribal members living on the Isle de Jean Charles relocated, splintering their tight-knit community and culture. The tribe is the first coastal indigenous group to relocate as a community in modern times, and is paving the way for other groups who face climate impacts to plan their own relocations.

The funding to help the Isle de Jean Charles Indians is part of a larger move by the White House to help increase climate resilience nationally. The HUD and Rockefeller Foundation's National Disaster Resilience Competition is offering close to $1 billion in disaster recovery funds to 13 states and local communities that have suffered from climate change-exacerbated natural disasters. The $48 million grant for the Isle de Jean Charles Indians is part of a $93 million award to Louisiana.

An EESI briefing highlighted the HUD/Rockefeller Foundation's National Disaster Resilience Competition in November 2014, soon after it was launched in September of that year. Advancing Resiliency: Competing for Innovative Investments showcased partnerships that have developed innovative approaches to maximize economic and social resiliency when investing public funds in local recovery and development.


Author: Laura Small