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Postcards from Louisiana

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In honor of the 5-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Ocean Conservancy interviewed residents about the spill, its impacts and what the Gulf means to them. Over the next 87 days—the length of the spill itself—we will be releasing “postcards from the Gulf” to share their stories. This blog is the second of a four-part series featuring some of the full-length interviews from our postcards.  Be sure to follow Ocean Conservancy on Facebook and Twitter over the next couple of months to see all of the postcards.

Chief Albert Naquin
Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw
Pointe-aux-Chenes, LA

At the edge of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana there is a narrow road bordered on both sides by piles of rocks and nearly open water peppered with the remnants of what was once thick marsh. This road leads to a small island, only a couple miles long and a half -mile wide. The island, called Isle de Jean Charles, is home to a Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, who settled there more than two centuries ago. The land, which sustained this tribe for generations, is vanishing.

Chief Albert Naquin has served as tribal leader since 1997. He reflects on what life was like on the island: “The land has changed in my lifetime from what it was to what it is today. When I was growing up, we could catch our fish, catch our seafood and wildlife that we needed to survive. Now we have no land; basically it’s all water.”

In the past several decades, erosion of the marsh around the island has introduced more salt water from the Gulf, changing the brackish water necessary to sustain the estuaries that provided the fish, shrimp and oysters on which the tribe depended. Chief Naquin understands the value of the marsh for the island and would like to see restoration efforts focused on restoring marsh in areas that are left out of levee protection systems.

“For restoration to be a success, I’d want to put some marsh back to stop the tidal surge. It’s the water that’s causing us the harm more than the wind. When I was growing up, you’d have to climb over the marsh to get to the beach. If we could get some of that back, it could stop the salt water from coming in.”

Beyond the impact on fisheries resources, the marsh serves another life-sustaining purpose: protection. The island was once surrounded by tall marsh grasses that caught the wind and buffered the island against storm surge and flooding.  With nothing to slow them down, storms bring with them frequent floods which have had a devastating impact on the families living on the island. “I left out the island when I was young,” Chief Naquin explains, “I guess I’m not so resilient. I fought a flood once as an adult, married with a child. We had about an inch of mud in the house after Hurricane Carmen in 1974. At that time we had about 65 homes, and today there are only 25.”

Many families have moved off the island leaving behind the most vulnerable and those with the least means. “We have some younger folks there, but I don’t know if the island’s going to last for them to see it. They may have to pack up and go. But there are others who have homes that are paid for. They can’t afford rent, or another mortgage, so they have to stay there. The displacement has had a big impact on the next generation. They want to be close to mom and dad, but they can’t.”

The cultural heritage and traditions of the tribe are threatened by the fracturing of this community. Chief Naquin and the members of the tribal council are struggling to hold the community together. In recent years, most of the tribe’s members have come to understand that their survival as a tribe will likely depend on relocating and beginning a new community further from the eroding coast. For Chief Naquin, this is not something that could happen in some distant future, the needs of this community are urgent.

“We can’t restore this community or the environment around this community, because we would have to continue to have money to keep it up, because we still have storms washing it away. For me, what’s important is to invest in a new community and to put money into a fund that would sustain the community. If we had that, we wouldn’t have to ask for help because we would have our own. That’s my goal, to be self-sufficient again with the tribe. But I’m running out of time.”

More blogs from this series:

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