The island of Jean Charles in the Mississippi River Delta has provided refuge to Native Americans for decades. Now, though, the island is disappearing. Many have decided to leave.

By Christoph Seidler

An Island Disappears

House on Stilts

She knew the first time she saw him that she would marry him. Or at least, that's the story Rita Falgout tells today. "Don't ask me why," she says. But that's what happened. Her brothers had brought along a deckhand from their oyster boat to a dance a few towns away. His name was Roosevelt, but everyone just called him Rooster.

After that evening, Rita and Rooster began seeing each other - and then they indeed got married. That was almost an entire lifetime ago, and this year, they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, Falgout says.

Sitting with her at her round kitchen table, it's hard to believe her. The friendly woman in jeans and a T-shirt looks more like she's 61 rather than her true age of 82. And her appearance also doesn't betray the countless hurricanes she has suffered through during her life.

A sign on Isle de Jean Charles: About 80 people still live on the island in the Mississippi Delta. Twelve years ago, the population was still 265 and a long time ago, it was supposedly 400. The island is rapidly losing land and residents are leaving as a result.

Her husband's face, by contrast, is crisscrossed by deep wrinkles. And they're not just the product of the cancer Rooster is battling. Soon, the Falgouts will have to leave their home. They will have to pack up their belongings, remove the family photos from the shelves, box up the toys for their great-grandchildren and take down the Jesus image and the dreamcatcher from the wall.

And then there's Rita's shot-glass collection, arranged in several rows on a small shelf on the wall - even though she doesn't drink a drop of alcohol.

To enter the Falgouts' kitchen, you must first climb up a wooden staircase perhaps 13 feet (4 meters) higher than street level. Their house, after all, is built on stilts - a product of where they live. Isle de Jean Charles is an island in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta, about one hour southwest of New Orleans by car.

And that is why they will soon have to leave. Many people in Louisiana are engaged in the ongoing battle against water, but in the case of Isle de Jean Charles, it has become clear that the water has won. The government is paying to relocate them to a less flood-prone area further inland.

Isle de Jean Charles is no longer part of Louisiana's future flood-protection concept. The multi-billion-dollar Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Project, a system of levees and floodgates currently under construction, will run far to the north, partly due to financial constraints. The small, two-lane road on the island was last refurbished in 2011 and these days, all it takes is a strong south wind to flood it with water from Terrebonne Bay.

At the beginning of the road, there is a small yellow traffic sign with black writing on it. Another is located behind the island's small marina, which is frequented by area fishermen. Written on both signs are the words "Dead End" - in many ways, an appropriate metaphor for the island.

In the past six decades, the Isle de Jean Charles has lost far more than 90 percent of its surface area, the result of a chain of events beginning with the construction of numerous channels in the swamps by oil and natural gas companies for their ships and pipelines.

An Island Disappears

Where Trees and Plants Die

For decades, oil and natural gas have brought economic prosperity to this part of Louisiana - along with a massive problem: By way of the channels dug by the industry, salt water is penetrating inland from the Gulf of Mexico. And this, in turn, is causing the trees and other plants to slowly die.

When their roots are no longer able to hold the ground together, it is washed away by the storms - storms that bring even more salt water in from the gulf. As a result, the island is disappearing bit by bit.

Making matters worse is the fact that flood-protection measures designed to protect the rest of Louisiana have meant the Mississippi now carries far less sediment into this part of the delta than it used to. Instead, that sediment is sinking to the bottom in the lakes formed behind levees further inland, a problem that plagues rivers around the world. The result is that land in the river's estuary is not receiving the material it needs to replenish itself. And the sediment that does manage to make it this far doesn't end up in the delta either. Dikes on the riverbanks mean it is washed far out into the Gulf of Mexico.

Shrimp fisherman Emray Naquin, 82, waiting to begin fishing for shrimp on Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. They normally begin appearing at sunset. Most of those living in the Mississippi Delta make their living through fishing and shrimping.

The sea level rise - roughly 1 centimeter, or half an inch, per year in the region - does the rest. Nevertheless, Terrebonne Parish, where Isle de Jean Charles is located, voted overwhelmingly for U.S. President Donald Trump, who doesn't care much about climate action in general and the Paris Agreement in particular. The parish went 72.7 percent for Trump, with almost three times as many votes for the Republican candidate as for his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Der steigende Meeresspiegel - er nimmt in der Region um ungefähr einen Zentimeter pro Jahr zu" - tut den Rest. Donald Trump, den US-Präsident, dem der Klimaschutz im Allgemeinen und das Abkommen von Paris im Speziellen nichts wert sind, haben sie hier trotzdem gewählt. Im Terrebonne Parish, wo die Isle de Jean Charles liegt, kam der Republikaner auf 72,7 Prozent und holte fast drei Mal so viele Stimmen wie seine Gegnerin Hillary Clinton" .

Moving to Higher Ground

Are the people of Jean Charles America's first climate refugees, as can often be read in the media? By moving to higher ground, are they a worthy symbol for the unavoidable need to adapt to a climate change phenomenon that will affect millions of people in the coming years?

The answer is not so simple, because so many factors are playing a role in the island's disappearance. But perhaps the debate is merely academic. After all, for the inhabitants of Isle de Jean Charles, the fact that the island is disappearing, the fact that they have to leave their homes, is what is important. Ultimately, the label attached to their move is secondary.

"Before, it was ... different, here," says Rita Falgout slowly. "There was land. There were trees." There were pastures where the cattle could graze, yards where the chickens pecked and scratched and fields where corn and beans grew. Residents took their boats out to fish for oysters and shrimp - and not just as a hobby, as is the case today, but to earn a living.

It was a time when the island, much larger back then, could only be reached by boat and not, like today, by the narrow Island Road, surrounded on both sides by water. Children back then had to travel by wooden boat to their elementary school on the mainland.

There are still a couple of trees that remain standing on the island, trees that have thus far been spared by hurricanes Lee, Isadore, Gustav, Ike, Katrina, Rita and the others. But there is almost no land left at all.

Roughly 80 people still live on Isle de Jean Charles, far fewer than the 265 people just 12 years ago. Much earlier, the population was supposedly 400. Most of them are Native Americans, part of a tribal union called the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.

Their ancestors came to the island around 1830 and so did French settlers. The two groups mixed through marriage, speaking English and French. Today, a mixture of languages is still spoken on the island, which is named after the father of one of the settlers, Jean Charles Naquin.

An Island Disappears

Home of the Persecuted

The Native Americans did not come of their own accord. They came to escape persecution elsewhere in the country. By way of the Indian Removal Act, the U.S. government justified the brutal, forced resettlement of Native Americans, many of whom were driven from their homelands along the Trail of Tears to barren Oklahoma. At least one quarter died on the way.

It is a background that must be kept in mind when discussing the present-day resettlement of the people of Jean Charles and whether they should leave. It should also be kept in mind that as recently as half a century ago, Native Americans on the island and in the rest of the state weren't allowed to go to public schools. Many island residents haven't forgotten that era - and now they find themselves facing a situation in which traces of their community, such as the old cemetery, are threatened with eradication.

It isn't clear yet whether the cemetery, which can only be reached via a rickety wooden bridge, will be moved along with the residents. "I have a sister and a brother there," says Rita Falgout. "They died before I was born. I don't want them to be disturbed now."

The federal government has made $48.1 million available to the state of Louisiana for the relocation, part of a January 2016 effort to fund projects aimed at combatting the effects of global warming. In other parts of the country, municipalities proposed projects to build flood-proof roads and levees. Isle de Jean Charles, by contrast is using the money to evacuate. The relocation is to be completed by 2022, which is when the aid will cease flowing.

The plan is to be implemented by a consulting firm from Baton Rouge called CSRS. James Andermann, a short-haired landscape architect who previously worked with those affected by Hurricane Sandy in New York, is the project manager responsible. When he is working on the island he often teams up with Jessica Simms, a representative from the Louisiana agency responsible.

The new location of the community, says Andermann, will be "in a safer area, away from the coast that will not receive nearly the amount of flooding Isle de Jean Charles has received." He says they want to "be "very considerate of the cultural aspect" that has been connected to this island for generations.

'This Is My Home. This Is Where I Belong.'

For generations. It's easy to say. But when you speak with Chris Brunet, you quickly get an idea of what that actually means. Due to illness, the 52-year-old is wheelchair-bound. He lives a few houses down from the Falgouts on the island's only road, and has invited his guest onto his deck, which is unfortunately popular with swarms of small flies whose bites itch for days.

Brunet's home is also built on stilts and he has installed an open elevator to get to the second floor. He says his ancestors have lived on the island for eight generations and that he has lived his entire life here.

"It's my home. It's where we belong," he says. And yet he can imagine leaving. "Coastal erosion," he says, "has done so much to change the landscape that's around me," making it radically different than the place his ancestors moved to. "It is not something we asked for. It is something that has happened during the time we're over here."

This isn't the first time the island's inhabitants have had to think about relocating. In 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers addressed the issue and had architects come up with a relocation plan. But the islanders ultimately decided against the proposal because of their close ties with the land.

When relocation came up again in 2008, there was a dispute with the potential new neighbors. They were concerned their houses would lose value because of the arrival of the more socially disadvantaged islanders - and once again the people of Jean Charles stayed put.

Edison Doesn't Want to Go

One of those who doesn't want to leave even now is Edison Dardar. A stocky man with a head of mussed white hair, Dardar is standing in the ground floor of his stilt house. This is where he fixes things and where he cleans fish. A knife with a blade the length of a forearm is lying on a blue cutting board. Edison has no desire to move anywhere else. "There's only one place like the island. I don't see why people want to go," he responds, when Simms asks him.

Dardar and his son have put up a sign across the street from their home. The writing has already weathered, but it remains clear that it is an indictment of all those who want to force the inhabitants to move. And against all those who would accept such offers. Still, Edison decides to attend the public meeting with the relocation manager.

Simms asks what would be necessary to convince him to move. Dardar says, "a million dollars." Seriously? The islander merely smiles silently.

It raises the question: If it is this difficult to move a few dozen people out of danger from rising sea levels and the other problems, then how will it be possible to do the same for much larger populations, like those living in areas of Florida at risk of flooding?

But perhaps that question is too broad. Perhaps this is really only about the future of a single island. And that might be complicated enough.

An Island Disappears

A New Home on the Sugarcane Plantation

Those wanting to know what the Jean Charles residents' new home will look like still need to rely heavily on imagination. The so-called Evergreen Property, where the new houses are to be built, is located a few kilometers outside of Houma, almost an hour by car from the island.

For the time being, sugarcane is still growing on the fields along Highway 24. Some has already been harvested while elsewhere, the plants are shoulder-height. Running through the middle of it is one of those canals filled with brackish water that can be found everywhere in the area. A group from the island was here some time ago to have a look around and, according to Jessica Simms, the visit went well.

No boats can be anchored here, unlike on the island, something that not everyone will be happy about. But when you're fleeing from water, perhaps it's normal to end up somewhere where there is none. And some, like Rita Falgout, welcome the change. "What I'll miss when I leave?" she says, repeating the journalist's question. "Certainly not the water. Or fishing."

Chris Brunet is more contemplative about the property near Houma. "I think it's a beautiful place. It is not what we have over here, but it is something that I can live with," he says. Can he imagine living there? "Eventually" he says, after a pause. "But I'm still over here. I still see that as over there for right now." And then he looks from his deck to the water. "To many people it may not look like much, but to me it really means a lot. It just does."

An Island Disappears


Text: Christoph Seidler

Photos and Videos: Christoph Seidler, AFP

Translation: Thomas Rogers

Editing: Holger Dambeck, Olaf Kanter

Video Editing: Martin Sümening

Copy Editing: Thomas Fuchs, Sebastian Hofer

Productionn: Dawood Ohdah