How the first federal climate relocation of a whole community stumbled

·Columbia Journalism Investigations
·15 min read

This article was produced in partnership with Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations.

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. — A sliver is all of this islet that remains above water. What hasn’t slipped into the Gulf of Mexico shows the punishing effects of disastrous climate change: trees killed by saltwater, grasslands overtaken by bayous, empty wrecks that were once homes.

“Our house was here,” said Albert White Buffalo Naquin, pointing to the overrun marsh where his family lived. He is chief of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, and 98% of its ancestral land is below water.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the state $48.3 million in 2016 to resettle the tribe to higher ground, the first federally funded effort to move an entire community because of climate change. Officials saw a chance to create a model of wholesale voluntary relocation for a country that urgently needs to prepare for many more such projects.

An aerial view of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana.
Isle de Jean Charles, La., in May 2022. (Olga Loginova/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

Six years in, as the process of moving families to the new site gets underway, the situation at Isle de Jean Charles underscores how challenging this work will be — and how badly the country will fail the ever-growing number of people in harm’s way if it doesn’t figure out how to do it well.

Early missteps undermined trust and shifted who was eligible to participate, according to a year-long investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations, the Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations. The news organizations conducted interviews with dozens of tribal leaders, island residents, researchers and former and current government officials, and reviewed more than 2,000 government and tribal records.

Citizens of the United Houma Nation also live on the vanishing isle. When that tribe’s then-chief learned of the HUD funding, he pressed the state to include his people too. In the aftermath, Naquin and other leaders of the Jean Charles tribe contend the process disenfranchised them.

Relocation experts warn that climate resettlement in the U.S. will fall far short without major changes to the federal government’s approach. They said the Isle de Jean Charles effort illustrates the need for an organized response — a designated federal agency focused on community resettlements — with far more money, fewer bureaucratic hurdles and greater sensitivity to the needs of communities affected by the United States’ long history of forced relocation and racism. Those are often the places most threatened by the climate crisis.

Albert White Buffalo Naquin.
Albert White Buffalo Naquin, chief of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. (Olga Loginova/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

“We really could increase the amount of funding going to these kinds of relocation so that it doesn’t have to be such an either-or choice in the future,” said A.R. Siders, a climate adaptation researcher at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center.

There’s little time to waste. Already, communities hard hit by rising seas and intensifying hurricanes, floods and wildfires are finding that the country offers little coordinated assistance for relocating people together, according to an investigation by Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners. Those seeking help from a patchwork of programs face steep barriers — particularly in communities of color.

The mismatch between need and assistance will get worse if nothing is done. Federal research predicts that more than 13 million Americans may have to move away from vanishing shorelines up and down the coasts over the rest of the century, a figure that doesn’t include the impact of other climate disasters.

The hope of charting a path forward is exactly why HUD officials decided to fund the Isle de Jean Charles project. They knew it wouldn’t be easy.

“The point wasn’t that it would necessarily be a success,” said Harriet Tregoning, a former HUD official who initiated the competition that funded the project, “but that we would learn a lot about what to do and what not to do. Because we have a lot of this coming in our future.”

The disappearing island

An aerial view of the road leading to Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana.
The road leading to Isle de Jean Charles, La. (Olga Loginova/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

Members of the Jean Charles tribe trace their history on the isle back to about 1840.

This was the remote swamp, 40 miles as the crow flies from New Orleans. People of Biloxi, Chitimacha and Choctaw descent were settling nearby, casualties of colonial land-grabbing treaties. By 1880, the U.S. government had documented the island as exclusively Indigenous.

Its population remains mostly Indigenous today, the majority being members of the Jean Charles tribe.

But hundreds who lived there have fled. As recently as 1950, the islet was 22,400 acres — half the size of Washington, D.C. Now it’s 320 acres, or half the size of Washington’s National Mall, with around a dozen livable homes left standing.

This loss was caused both by global warming and local oil and gas development. Dredging canals for fossil fuel infrastructure near the island undermined the land and hastened its descent into the Gulf, researchers say. Climate change on its own would have caused the island to disappear more slowly by sending more frequent and worse storms and increasing sea levels.

Between 1992 and 2021, 15 hurricanes and two floods classified by the federal government as major disasters hit Terrebonne Parish, where the island is located, according to an analysis of federal data by Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners. That makes it one of the hardest-hit areas in a hard-hit state.

Destroyed structures and debris scattered around the island.
Destruction from Hurricane Ida, which tore through the bayou communities in August 2021, is still apparent on Isle de Jean Charles, La., in May. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Naquin, the tribe’s chief, is 75. He left the island because a 1974 hurricane dumped 11 inches of water on his house, built after a 1965 hurricane destroyed his previous home. Earlier, he said, islanders and the parish would come together after a big storm and clean their single road of mud, salvage wood from broken trees and get on with their lives. But in recent decades, every hurricane brought more and more devastation with little outside assistance.

“We lose land, every hurricane we lose land,” he said. “And now all we have is the little bitty strip of houses and the road.”

In June 2002, more than 100 island residents gathered at a local fire station with public officials and members of the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss their options.

“They’ll have to move me in a box,” one resident shouted, according to press reports.

Naquin had a different view: “We have to look at an alternate plan to keep the community alive. I hate to say this, but maybe relocation is that alternative.”

His efforts to resettle his tribe, bringing those displaced by hurricanes back into the fold, began soon afterward.

Two attempts failed. The Army Corps offered in 2002 to move everyone off the island, then walked it back after some residents declined. Later that decade, the parish government offered to build more than 60 houses for the islanders in a new subdivision in the nearby town of Bourg, a plan that fell apart after resistance from Bourg residents.

A satellite image of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana.
A 2018 satellite image shows Isle de Jean Charles, La. (Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

In 2010, the Jean Charles tribe asked the Lowlander Center, a local nonprofit group, to help them in their resettlement efforts. Lowlander, founded by sociologists and disaster experts Shirley Laska and Kristina Peterson, helps lowland communities of coastal and inland Louisiana adapt to climate change and recover from environmental disasters. Peterson met the tribe’s chief in 1992 during the Hurricane Andrew recovery, and they’d stayed in touch.

For several years, Lowlander and the tribe worked on a blueprint for resettlement. The idea was to find a place large enough for the dwindling number of people on the island and the hundreds driven off it. There would be a tribal community center. A clinic. Pow wow grounds, traditional gardens, a market.

And then came word of HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition.

The climate change contest

The announcement in June 2014 by President Barack Obama invited state and local governments that experienced a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or 2013 to “compete for funds to help them rebuild and increase their resilience.” The effort promised nearly $1 billion in funding for innovative projects demonstrating solutions to increasing climate disasters.

HUD’s Tregoning considered the one-time competition an opportunity for her agency to overcome institutional inertia and begin to change a system of disaster recovery that no longer works. Instead of dispersing money only after a disaster strikes and rebuilding things to exactly the way they were before as if the same problems won’t reoccur, the country needs a forward-thinking approach, she said.

“Yes, we’re gonna address the disaster that happened,” Tregoning said. “But how can we do it in a way that builds resilience to future disasters in a community?”

Harriet Tregoning.
Harriet Tregoning, then director of the District of Columbia Office of Planning, testifies before the House Oversight Committee in 2013. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

After HUD released the competition rules in September 2014, the Jean Charles tribe, the Lowlander Center and the Louisiana Office of Community Development got to work developing a grant application.

Four current and former employees of the state’s Office of Community Development told Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners that Lowlander officials had led them to believe that all full-time residents of the island were members of the Jean Charles tribe.

In an interview, Peterson said Lowlander gave the state information about the tribe rather than the island as a whole because the grant was for the tribe to reunify.

“It was not a proposal that was put in for the geography of a space. It was for a tribe to reconnect all of its people,” she said. “When somebody starts arguing, ‘Well, you didn’t tell us that there was Sam or Gertrude or whoever else was living there,’ that becomes very irrelevant when it was for a tribe to reassemble itself.”

But tribal reunification wasn’t what the HUD competition aimed to do, one former HUD official told Columbia Journalism Investigations and its partners in an interview for this story.

State officials say they did not talk to residents on the island to check who was there because they relied on the information from Lowlander.

Years later, researchers brought on by the state to help with the resettlement would tell the Office of Community Development that it should have done its own homework. One of them, anthropologist Anthony Oliver-Smith, said in an interview that state employees recognized the severity of the misstep, calling it the project’s “original sin.”

An aerial view of Isle de Jean Charles in 2017.
An aerial view of Isle de Jean Charles in 2017. (State of Louisiana/Handout via Reuters)

But in March 2015, before any of that was apparent, state officials submitted the first application.

When Louisiana had made it to the next phase, the state tasked Lowlander with spearheading the vision for the proposed resettlement, which the tribe expected would allow reunification of current and former island residents. Peterson and her colleagues brought together sociologists, disaster experts, architects, engineers and funders.

The team eagerly waited for HUD’s decision. It came on Jan. 21, 2016: Louisiana finished fifth, receiving $92 million for Isle de Jean Charles and another project.

The state Office of Community Development touted its grant as a victory for “this Native American community in critical need of locating [to] a safer home” and “a resettlement model that is scalable, transferrable and supportive of cultural and social networks.”

Thomas Dardar, then the chief of the United Houma Nation, found out about the award soon after, in passing. Dardar said he couldn’t accept that his tribal citizens living on the island would not be included in the relocation.

“Our Tribal Council, although excited to see some much needed funds come towards the plight of Isle de Jean Charles, is shocked that we were never informed and brought to the table in the discussion as UHN citizens reside there as well,” he wrote in a letter to Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards.

The situation upended plans for the resettlement and splintered the partnership between the state, Lowlander and the tribe.

“The project was not doomed,” said Dakota Fisher, a former planner for the state who worked on the effort, “but the project was doomed to be hard and imperfect for the rest of its life.”

‘Is there justice?’

Fifteen days after the United Houma Nation chief sent his letter, a fact sheet from the state alerted the two tribal chiefs to the project’s change in scope: The “state’s objective is the resettlement of all willing members of the Isle de Jean Charles community, irrespective of any familial, culture or tribal affiliation.”

A man in a wheelchair pets a dog.
Chris Brunet, a longtime resident of Isle de Jean Charles, with his dog Cocoa. (Olga Loginova/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

For months Naquin and Lowlander advocated to return to the original vision of relocation for the Jean Charles tribe, records and interviews show. But there was a wedge now between the state and its partners.

State officials brought in a new team of sociologists and anthropologists, as well as their own staff, for community outreach. In 2018, when Lowlander’s contract on the project ended, the nonprofit did not sign a renewal.

To involve residents in the resettlement process, state officials convened a steering committee of tribal and non-Indigenous residents and business owners in 2018. But the committee disbanded after only six meetings, according to progress reports, meeting notes and interviews. Committee members from both tribes as well as others with no tribal affiliation described recurring fights with no resolution.

In May 2020, on 515 acres of land on higher ground, contractors got to work building the new homes.

Pat Forbes, who heads the Louisiana Office of Community Development, said his staff went down the only path available to them. The project is a success, by his accounting, because Louisiana is moving people out of a dangerous situation.

Had the state known the island demographics earlier, Forbes insists, the end result would have been the same. “We still would have turned in an application that represented an opportunity for folks living on the island, irrespective of tribal association, to move to a safer place and to try to keep that cohesive culture together.”

A man shows an artistic rendering of a proposed structure.
Executive Director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development Pat Forbes speaks to the press about what the homes will look like at 'The New Isle,' a subdivision under construction for members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, near Shriever, La. (Kathleen Flynn/Reuters)

Naquin’s perspective as the Jean Charles chief is that the project is yet another disaster for the tribe. Though he’s happy for the people getting new homes, the end result locked hundreds of members out. Tribal leaders had little say in developing the final plan, he said. And Naquin fears that an actual reunification is now impossible.

HUD hoped to learn lessons from Isle de Jean Charles. Multiple residents, government employees and researchers said in interviews that this is the critical one: For resettlement to work at a large scale, the country must approach it differently.

“You have to have flexibility, you have to have room for the community to do things that deviate from the norm in order to deal with whatever that local context is,” said Siders, the University of Delaware disaster researcher.

At The New Isle, the state’s resettlement site, two rows of houses — 37 total — curve like a giant centipede next to an artificial pond. Only those still living on the island in August 2012 qualify. Twenty-five empty lots are prepped for eligible residents who left the island before then; they will have to pay for the home construction themselves.

When Columbia Journalism Investigations visited in May, construction workers were finishing the facades. The subdivision looked nearly ready for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, as if years of tension and disappointment never happened.

An aerial view of newly built homes in a subdivision.
Houses close to completion on The New Isle in May. (Olga Loginova/Columbia Journalism Investigations)

Chris Brunet, 57, a member of the Jean Charles tribal council who has lived on the island most of his life, is among those moving to The New Isle. What’s unfolding isn’t what tribal leaders envisioned, but Brunet is sure no one would have received help without Chief Naquin’s efforts.

“I know HUD … gave the $48 million for the relocation. But it is not HUD who was talking about the relocation,” Brunet said. “They funded the relocation, but it’s not them that was advocating it. It was Chief Albert. It’s not the state that was advocating relocation. It was Chief Albert. And it wasn’t the parish that was pushing it. ... It was Chief Albert.”

That day in May, Brunet sat on the deck of his hurricane-damaged island home, sorting through debris. Salvageable possessions went into bins. The rest he trashed.

All his memories and connections are tied to this land that saltwater is overtaking. He thought of the people who left. The 15 trees that were once in his yard — oaks, hackberries, persimmons, oranges and pecans, all dead because of the incursion. The garden plots and chickens he and others here used to keep, gone now, too.

“Is there justice in me going over there? Is preservation the key point of why we’re going over there?” Brunet pondered this. “I have to sit here and say, yes, that’s why Chief Albert was pushing relocation, so that the community … remained as a community, as a people. So OK, that’s the preservation part of it. Now what’s the justice part?”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the federal government taking notice of the island's demographics in the 19th century.

CJI research assistants Gabriela Alcalde and Samantha McCabe contributed to this story.

Olga Loginova and Zak Cassel are reporting fellows for Columbia Journalism Investigations, an investigative reporting unit at the Columbia Journalism School. The Center for Public Integrity and Type Investigations, two nonprofit investigative newsrooms, provided reporting, editing, fact checking and other support. Additional funding for this story was provided by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.