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Stay or go? Isle de Jean Charles families wrestle with the sea

By Ted Jackson   2016
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ISLE de JEAN CHARLES -- The message scrawled on the whitewashed plywood sign was clear, even if it was only one man's perspective: "We are not moving off this island. If some people want to move, they can go. But leave us alone." It was signed, "Edison Jr."

I had come to Isle de Jean Charles, a tiny community set deep in the south Louisiana wetlands and home to a small band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, to examine this sentiment. Only a few dozen residents remain here, hanging onto a vanishing lifestyle on a narrow ridge that is vanishing into the sea, and now they are weighing whether to stay or to accept a federal offer to move en masse to higher ground.

The sign didn't feel welcoming, but I knew I had to meet this man. Slinging my camera over my shoulder, I cautiously crossed the planked walkway leading to the nearest house. Like most others on the island, it was perched high atop wooden pilings.

I could barely make out a figure moving in the shadows beneath the house. He was mending nets. "What you want?" he said as I announced myself.

"I'm looking for Edison. Everybody on the island says I need to talk with him."

"He ain't here right now," the man said.

"Do you know when he's coming back? I can come back."

"Don't know," he said. His eyes remained fixed on his work, lacing a cord through the ripped net.

"Well, I've been talking to Wen Billiot down the road. He says he's leaving the island. He's ready to go."

"He does, does he?" came the reply.


"Well, he told me he was staying."

I countered: "Chris Brunet said he was leaving, too. He said it was the best thing for his family."

"Don't say," said the man, a note of irritation in his voice.

"What about you?" I said.

He cut the cord then slammed down his knife, sticking it with a thud into the wooden floor. He glared at me. Then, with a sly smile, he stuck out his hand.

"Hi, I'm Edison."

. . . . . . .

Edison Dardar Jr. is 67 years old and is one of the 65 or so people in 25 families living on Isle of Jean Charles. Few others wander here by accident; most visitors come here for one of three reasons: to fish, because they're hopelessly lost or they're nosey.

To get here from New Orleans, one travels about 80 miles, passing progressively from concrete corridors to sugar cane fields, then through oilfield supply yards and finally to fishing camps. South of Houma, hard, dry land gives way to something resembling a waterlogged sponge cake, and the English language blurs effortlessly into French.

Isle de Jean Charles once was four miles wide and home to several hundred people. Today it's about 1/4 mile wide with a small enclave of houses on a 11/2-mile long strip of land. As south Louisiana's wetlands continue to sink and sea levels continue to rise, this ridge has become a vulnerable environmental outpost, ringed by a low levee that, from the air, looks more like a cofferdam about to surrender to the Gulf of Mexico.

The community is made up of 25 houses, 32 fishing camps and 10 abandoned home sites, a part-time marina, a cemetery and a volunteer fire station. Before 1952, it was only accessible by boat. Now a two-mile-long road links Isle de Jean Charles to Point-aux-Chenes and civilization beyond.

But high tides and strong southern winds often flood the road. Storms repeatedly crumble segments of asphalt into the waters. Like the road, Isle de Jean Charles is slowly disappearing. There is no plan to save it.

. . . . . . .

But there is a plan to save the people. And it has everyone talking.

The Louisiana State Office of Community Development, working with tribal leaders was awarded a $48 million relocation plan grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The first-of-its-kind plan would move residents to higher ground, a unique effort to hold an entire community together in the face of an environmental threat. Each family would receive a new home in a community designed to mimic their beloved Isle de Jean Charles, complete with a winding roadway and access to open water. The most likely location would be closer to Houma.

As of yet, there are no blueprints to see. But residents are coming to terms with their options. The best part of the deal is that they get to keep their current property, but not as a permanent residence.

It's not just going to be about, 'Hooray, we're packing up. ... It's not going to be a party." - Chris Brunet.

"It's not a buyout," said the Rev. Roch Naquin, a retired priest and long-time resident. "If we relocate, we get to keep our home and property. The agreement (is that) they're going to build homes and also a (community) center supposedly."

"My first preference would have been to stay. But ... here's an opportunity to move to safer and higher ground," Roch said. Residents should "take advantage of it because something may happen later on and destroy this whole area. Wisdom says to go with what is being done."

Chris Brunet, who is Naquin's nephew and neighbor agrees. But he knows there is more to consider than just wisdom. His roots run deep on the island. And his heart is torn.

"This land, this island has been our home for about seven or eight generations ... and probably even longer. I can trace back my great-grandfather. And one of them is Jean Charles," he said, "the one who the island is named after."

Brunet, 51, is clearly reluctant to leave a place where isolation has protected the tribe for generations. He cites reasons for Native Americans to stay out of sight: "There was the Trail of Tears. There was the Civil War. There was a time when it was taboo to be Indian."

History and heart aside, he's made his decision. "I'm one that's part of this community that's saying 'yes' to the relocation," he said. "None of us hate this place; none of us want to really abandon this place. You know, it's not just going to be about, 'Hooray, we're packing up. We're leaving!' It's not going to be a party."

"We shouldn't really fear tomorrow. We'd just be burdening ourselves for nothing. (But) I have to make a decision about tomorrow, today. With this grant coming through, then, I'm going to say 'yes'."

Others are against it for the moment, he continued: "Somebody may disagree. That doesn't make them wrong. For those that are saying no, today, right now, I can understand them."

He's talking about people such as Hilton Chaisson. "I was born here, and I'm going to die here," said Chaisson, 68.

Chaisson conceded that things are getting worse with each passing storm. He recalls barely escaping his house with his family during Hurricane Rita in 2005. But he takes a generations-old approach to flooding. "We just wash the house out with a hose and buy new furniture, " he said.

Just down the road, Keith Brunet, 40, has seen enough. More than six feet of water washed over his property in the last storm - and almost two feet entered the house, along with six inches of mud. "Hell, yeah ... I'll go," he said. I can show you the hole in my floor where I raked the mud out. You get tired of it," he said.

Brunet was raised on Isle de Jean Charles, fishing and swimming in the bayou in front of his house. "I made a living out of this little canal," he said. "Now it's just stagnated water."

After serving a stint in prison on drug charges, Brunet moved back here looking for a fresh start with his wife Keisha, 28, and their two children. After his father died, they took over his family home. Moving back let him reconnect with relatives. "Everybody down here is kin," he said.

But he found it's not the same place that he left years before. "It's just horrible when we have a storm." he said. "All the levee really does is stop the water from the south winds. My estimation: 10 to 15 years, if we still have a road left, we'll be lucky. The land's sinking, eroding. There's nothing left but the strip of land where the houses are. I don't feel like the island is home anymore. If they offered me a home today, I'd be gone today. It's too much hassle."

Wencelaus Billiot, a tribal leader, is more reluctant, but still resigned. At 88, he has led a rich life, much of it centered on Isle de Jean Charles. After fighting in World War II, Billiot returned and married his sweetheart, Denecia, built a trawl boat and became an oysterman, then spent 20 years as a licensed tugboat captain.

The couple still lives in the tidy house where they raised seven children. A breezy porch welcomes neighbors each afternoon at 3 for coffee and cinnamon rolls. Statues of the Virgin Mary and an angel stand sentinel by the steps below. Family photos cover the entire wall of their living room.

Their daughter, Therese, who recently moved back to Isle de Jean Charles to take care of her aging parents, says it's time to go. "Why? Because they're getting kind of old, and it's hard for them to get to the doctors. It takes time," she said. "The rescue people won't come if we got water on the road. When daddy fell, we had to get a helicopter."

Billiot is so easy going that his nickname is Okey Dokey. "I don't want to go," he said, "but I will." He knows it's only a matter of time, for him and the island. "The older you are, the more you know what's going to come," he said.

With that, he unfolded maps of Isle de Jean Charles, from 1932 to 2010 and showing the slow progression of land loss, along with predictions. "In another 20 years there will be probably a couple feet of water around here," he said. "That's the way it goes. It will be."

. . . . . . .

The defiant Edison Dardar Jr. is determined to stay. "I was born on this island. My daddy lived to 91 years old on this island. We've been on this island for a long time."

Almost every evening he mounts his rickety bicycle and heads to the bayou. A crawfish boiling pot mounted on the handlebars cradles his cast net and a five-gallon bucket.

There he and his friends claim their spots on clunky docks made from old shipping crates and casually trade barbs and tell jokes as their cast nets hover effortlessly over the inky black water. The sky is set ablaze when the sun touches the horizon, and soon the moon appears. It's here that the gentle splash of the nets plays against the lead weights clunking against the dock, and that an oppressive hum of sand flies and mosquitoes bears down on exposed flesh.

One day at his house, Dardar put down his net mending and led me to a trail behind his home. We stepped through the jumbled overgrowth and past odd collections of rusting fishing gear, assorted junk, sacks of crushed aluminum cans and occasional treasures. He shooed away cats with a gentle swipe of his boot. The overgrown trail meandered past a shed and a small garden where leftover peas hung through a fence fashioned from an old fish net. The brush grew high, and the path turned into a grassy tunnel.

"Watch for the alligators," he said. It was hard to tell if he was joking.

The brush gave way, and we climbed the levee. He stood on the crest and gazed over the endless water beyond. Two half-sunken skiffs lay broken against an ancient dock.

"See those redfish right there?" he said. "I sit down on the water, and I catch my fish right there." He braced against the wind with a stern look of pride.

"I think I would be a fool if I would leave this island," he said. "What do you think?"

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