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Louisiana Indigenous Community fighting for Hurricane Justice | Climate Crisis
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Louisiana Indigenous Community fighting for Hurricane Justice | Climate Crisis

The Louisiana Indigenous community fighting for hurricane justice | Climate Crisis


This is the story.

Chauvin, United States –Chief Shirell Parfait–Dardar knew her house was gone long before she arrived.

On August 29, when Hurricane Ida made landfall with winds howling at 240 kph and ripped through southern Louisiana, Chief Shirell was with eight family members hunkering down an hour’s drive north from her home in Chauvin. The winds roared, trees fell and power lines fell as the family prayed inside the living room, 100km from the disaster.

Chief Shirell, her spouse, and their two young children drove home after the storm passed.

They passed through Houma (the largest city in Terrebonne parish), where trees leaned on houses and brick walls had fallen across roads. Further south, the bayous – slow-moving brackish waterways found in southern Louisiana and normally filled with crawfish, shrimp, and alligators – were filled with sunken, damaged boats.

In towns like theirs, built like thin strips along either side of the bayous, trailers were ripped open or gone, construction debris and the contents of people’s lives scattered across marshy yards. The homes were topped by tall, 100-year old live oaks.

Many houses were built on top of 12-foot stilts to protect from the water. However, the stilts gave way to countless flights of stairs that led nowhere. The base had been damaged by utility poles, leaving a trail of wire. There was no electricity or running water. There wouldn’t be for weeks and in some places, months. The destruction went on for kilometers.

“The further down you came, the worse it got. I knew. Before I even got there, I knew,” says Chief Shirell.

When she reached their house, the roof was gone. Everything inside was soaked. She was struck by the impulsiveness of the storm: in the destroyed bathroom, her bathrobe hung neatly on the hook behind the door. They never found their roof.

She recalls feeling “numb”.

“All I could think about was how many people were without homes.”

Chief Shirell, leader of the Grand Caillou Dulac tribe of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw confederation, and her family have helped people in Chauvin displaced by Ida [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Never a more severe storm

Chief Shirell, 41, is the leader of the Grand Caillou/Dulac tribe, one of three distinct but related Indigenous communities that comprise the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw confederation, whose homelands are in Louisiana.

When she was just 29, her elders appointed her Chief. “My job is to carry my people’s voice where they need to go. To ensure that our generations have a future,” she says.

It is a heavy responsibility today.

The three tribes – hers, the Isle de Jean Charles and the Bayou Lafourche tribes, named for the lands they inhabit – took the brunt of Hurricane Ida. Even though the area is often hit by hurricanes and storms, residents who have lived there for their entire lives say they have never seen one worse. In southern Louisiana, thousands were evacuated and the storm caused catastrophic flooding and destruction as far north as New York.

While none of the 1,003 members of Chief Shirell’s tribe lost their lives, hundreds lost their homes.

Chief Shirell and her family moved into her mother’s house, but others had nowhere to go. Some slept in tents or in their vehicles, others in damaged homes.

Official responders, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), weren’t fast enough to meet people’s needs in the immediate aftermath. It would take several months before FEMA began to provide temporary shelters.

“These systems don’t move as quickly as people need them to, and that’s just reality,” says Chief Shirell. “We don’t have time to wait for FEMA. You need people on the ground immediately.”

Chief Shirell began organizing relief efforts for her community. She began to compile a list of people who were houseless and searched for travel trailers and campers to shelter them. Through word-of-mouth, she learned about those in need of assistance in the tight-knit group.

In Chauvin, she converted a large warehouse, normally used for a veterans’ nonprofit, into a distribution hub for donated goods such as generators, petrol, bottled water, and canned food. Her husband and her children also help out.

The bayou communities looked like the storm had occurred last week, even though it was months later. Massive piles filled Chauvin’s main road, where houses were stacked across their torn-off roofs.

Chief Shirell says the number of people who are without houses “is still rising”, with mould and rainy weather further destroying damaged homes as people wait for funds from government agencies and insurance companies to rebuild. “FEMA has their process, but nature has her own process.”

Tribe members say they have had to be largely self-reliant, and that the recovery process will stretch on for months – even years. As they fight for government recognition, the tribe must rebuild in a region that is suffering from climate change.

Chief Shirell Parfait–Dardar stands in storm-damaged warehouse she used to distribute relief supplies in Chauvin [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

‘Not their first rodeo’

The three Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes have lived in the Louisiana bayous for hundreds of years. They are all located within a 25km (16 mile) radius of each other in Terrebonne parish. Each tribe has its own tribal council but members have close ties.

The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are themselves descendants of several tribes, including the Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Acolapissa, and Atakapa: tribes that were displaced and decimated by a series of ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out by the US government throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Acolapissa has been declared extinct.

The Terrebonne area was subject to an influx of white settlers, speculators, in the early 1800s. Indigenous communities were dispersed in search for safety. Some moved east, becoming the Isle de Jean Charles tribes or Bayou Lafourche, while others settled west around Bayou Grand Caillou, Dulac, and other areas. The three tribes united to form the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw confederation to assist one another with petitions to the federal government. Hurricane Ida is the latest chapter of a story that has been tangled up with forced displacement.

Diane Bourg, 64, a member of Chief Shirell’s tribe, was born and raised in the bayous. Gentle and soft-spoken, she recalls how, like many other Indigenous families in Dulac, her father made a living by fishing, shrimping, trapping, and “catching coons”, or racoons.

She and her husband rode Ida home with their partner and secured passage by placing mattresses against the doors to keep the wind out. “Once the wind gets in, [the house] blows apart.”

Ida volunteers her time to help her neighbors.

Bourg is greeted by many of her childhood friends as they pass through Anchor Foursquare Church, Dulac. The hallways are lined up with supplies, including fuel, generators, flashlights, and trash bags, as well as plywood, chainsaws, drills, and bleach to kill mildew on rain-soaked walls and belongings. Tarps can also be used to cover roofs that have been damaged.

In the absence of a social safety net, the community has learned to support one another.

“It’s not their first rodeo,” Chief Shirell says. “They knew it would mostly be from the community. They expected help from insurance companies, FEMA, or the Small Business Association. [SBA].”

Many of the supplies were donated to the bayous and transported there. volunteer organisations. Residents have also raised funds for supplies on their own.

Hurricane justiceA destroyed home in Isle de Jean Charles [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Housing crisis

Danielle Morris helps even though her home was destroyed. Despite constant work and the loss of her home, she is always optimistic. “We’ve been spending a lot of time here handing out food. What am I going to do, sit at home and cry?”

While she and her family weathered the storm out of town, Ida picked up their trailer, “moved it over three feet and dropped it”.

A cruel trick of timing is the key to her recovery. After 17 years of using the same insurer without ever filing a single claim, they were told that mobile homes were no longer covered when they renewed their insurance in June. “So, I have no insurance,” she says.

Morris’ family slept in cars before bouncing around among relatives. “My little one, he’s three. He just walks around saying, ‘Mom, is our house fixed yet? Our house is broken.’”

Housing is a major issue in the area. Residents are advised to live close to repair and rebuild, but many residents sleep in cars, tents, or boats.

According to Earl Eues of the Terrebonne Parish office of Homeland security and emergency preparedness, 10,000 Terrebonne Parish residents requested FEMA-trailers. However, six of the six trailers that were available for occupancy had been delivered by November end, according Earl Eues.

Some people have moved to the woods to live in tents as the cold weather continues.

FEMA can issue a voucher to displaced persons to stay at a nearby hotel free of charge during past disasters.

Chris Pulaski (director of Planning and Zoning for Terrebonne parish) says that Ida caused damage to many hotels in Terrebonne.

The hundreds of workers who came in to repair the damaged electric grid occupied the rooms. “We’re navigating a lot of uncharted territory right now. I don’t know if the whole notion of mass disruption, destruction, and damage on this particular scale was ever really…did [the state]Do you have a plan? I don’t know,” Pulaski says.

Hotel vouchers are used to holdover until FEMA delivers trailers. These can be used as long-term housing. Ironically, some of the delays in delivery are due to FEMA policy which prohibits trailer installation in areas below flood elevation. Terrebonne Parish councilman Dirk Guidry said that this policy is a reason for the delay.

FEMA has now made an exemption to this rule, says Guidry, yet locals say they are still being told by FEMA representatives that they can’t install trailers due to flood elevation issues.

Danielle Morris claims that no one survived Ida. She stands in front a house that survived the storm but was destroyed by a faulty generator just a few days later. ‘I feel at peace with things. As I throw stuff out, I’m like, ‘Well, I wanted a new couch anyway.” [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

‘You feel forgotten’

“We really did get let down by the federal government,” says Guidry.

Pizza Express is his only open restaurant in Chauvin. It has become a de facto social center. People come to the restaurant for a hot dinner, a beer, or news from Guidry.

“We down the bayou, baby. People don’t trust the government. Even me.” Guidry, genial and blue-eyed, is not Indigenous but French-speaking Cajun, and has the Cajun tendency to address his listeners as “baby”.

“You feel forgotten,” says Guidry. “It’s part of the United States down here. But you feel forgotten.”

Even when FEMA and other agencies do provide support, it isn’t enough, he says.

FEMA will only provide assistance to families who are looking to rebuild a home for a maximum of $40,000. But “there’s no way you can build a house, or repair your house, for $40,000. You will need to build a home down there. So you got to build your house 12-foot in the air, and you’re talking about an extra $80-90,000 just to do that. And then you got to build the home.”

Guidry himself had “92 pans” around his house after the storm, catching rain that came through his damaged roof, and went for weeks without plumbing. Guidry says that he took a dip in his pool until the water turned black before switching to bottled water.

As he sits in Pizza Express, residents stop him to ask about updates on FEMA trailers.

Guidry claims that 400 campers were delivered by Louisiana to Terrebonne Parish, the first time Louisiana has ever delivered campers to FEMA trailers. rolled out trailers separatelyFEMA. Guidry says that only half of them have been connected to water or power by the contractor.

A Chauvin resident waits for Dirk Guidry to answer his questions about FEMA trailers [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Land loss, rising waters

Hurricane Ida won’t be the last Category 4 hurricane to tear through the Louisiana coast.

Climate change is causing more severe and frequent storms. Some parts of the Gulf are warmer than average (36 degrees Fahrenheit) than they were a century ago.

Hurricane Ida saw a rapid intensification that whipped up from a Category 2- to nearly a category 5 storm overnight. This happened on average once per century. By 2100 this level of ferocity might occur every other year. 5 to 10 years.

The highest sea-level rise is occurring along the Louisiana coast. in the world. The Louisiana coast is home to a staggering rate of land loss: A football field’s worth vanishes from it. every 48 minutes.

Oil and gas companies have cut thousands of kilometres from the wetlands in order to permit drilling rigs and pipelines through it, causing land loss due to climate change.

These canals allow saltwater into the marsh, causing the death of plants and trees whose roots keep the soil together. The soil is washed away and the marshes that act as natural storm barriers die. To protect riverside communities, levees were built to prevent the buildup alluvial sediment that would normally be replacing substandard land. The land is sinking as the seas rise.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists say that at the rate of change, most of southeast Louisiana – where the three tribes are – will be underwater by the end of the century. In 2014, NOAA permanently removed 35 place names from their charts after cartographers discovered that they “no longer existed”.

Bayou communities must not only recover from the storm but also plan for the land loss that has already swallowed miles of Indigenous ancestral lands and will likely force them to flee their homelands.

Chief Shirell witnessed land disappear before she could blink. She believes her tribal land will vanish. within 50 years.

“It’s obvious. Especially if you go down Shrimpers Row,” she says, referring to a stretch of road in Dulac where mostly Indigenous families live. “You can see the dead trees, hundreds of feet of dead trees. That’s from saltwater intrusion.”

Shrimpers Row is where the majority of Chief Shirell’s family live. Prevost Cemetery is also located there, where her brother, father, grandparents and grandfather are buried.

Even the cemetery is at risk from being destroyed by rising water. One of her initiatives involves using ground-penetrating radars to locate the graves of ancestors to mark the boundaries of the cemetery. “If the water should come up, even if you’re passing over it in a boat, the GPS will let you know where you’re at – over Prevost Cemetery,” she says.

Jack Lyons has been living on his family’s shrimping boat in Chauvin since his camper was destroyed. Without diesel gas, he doesn’t have electricity [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Fight for federal recognition

All these obstacles – severe storms, sinking ground, rising seas – are compounded by another ongoing struggle. While the state of LouisianaRecognizes the tribe. They have been fighting since 1995 for federal recognition.

State recognition qualifies the tribe for some projects, but federal recognition would allow them to have a government-to-government relationship with the US and give the community greater control over their own affairs.

It would enable them to access funds including for storm mitigation through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which they currently don’t receive, launch emergency plans more easily and create economic development opportunities. They would also be eligible for various benefits and protections as well as a variety of housing, medical and social services.

“We’d be able to help people based on how they live,” says Chief Shirell. Instead, they face “a lack of funding and resources that we don’t qualify for due to discrimination”.

She also refers to the hundreds of years of systemic racism, exclusion that affects education, living conditions, and employment rates.

It has been a 26-year-long struggle for federal recognition. “We were told that we needed ‘a concise written narrative,’ which is insane. It’s not enough to give them all the evidence for the criteria – now they need a bedtime story?” asks Chief Shirell.

The document, which was submitted to Bureau of Indian Affairs, has more than 400 pages. It necessitated every member of the tribe trace back their genealogies using birth certificates, marriage and baptismal records, and even Supreme Court cases about property, wherein their own enslaved people were the ‘property’ in question.

“In the land records, we were able to trace it back to the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” says Chief Shirell, referring to one of the largest land transfers ever signed between the US government and Indigenous peoples, wherein the Choctaw ceded 45,000 square kilometres (17,000 square miles) of their homelands to the US. One of the signees is Taca Labaye – Chief Shirell’s ancestor. They have yet to be recognized.

hurricane justiceIsland Road, the 2.5km precarious road linking the mainland and Isle de Jean Charles has been destroyed by 98 percent. [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Displaced again, again

Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe can trace his lineage back several generations. His own great-grandfather, also a chief, was wary of calling himself one as he was “running from Andrew Jackson’s soldiers”.

Jackson was the 7th US president and a notorious leader of violent campaigns against Indigenous peoples. He signed the 1830 Declaration of Independence. Indian Removal Act, which led the US government to displace tens of thousands of Indigenous people in a series of expulsions now known as “The Trail of Tears”.

“When we walked the Trail of Tears,” Chief Albert says, “some of our ancestors didn’t want to go [west] to Oklahoma.” So they fled south, and settled in Isle de Jean Charles.

The island is located about 32km (20 mi) southeast of Chauvin and is almost completely lost.

Since 1955, the island lost 98 percent of its landThe island is now a small sliver at 3km (1.86 mile) wide. It is connected to mainland by a single precarious route.

In 2016, the people of Isle de Jean Charles became the first federally funded climate refugees in the continental US after a proposal developed by the community secured funds through HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition for the tribe to resettle in a community dubbed “New Isle”, a former sugarcane field north of Houma.

HUD submitted the original plans, which included a resilient settlement with green infrastructure. They also had a zero-carbon footprint. This was the result of architects working across the country. Both chiefs say the plans were hijacked by the state’s Office of Community Development (OCD).

“We would have had limestone for driveways, so grass would grow, and when rain comes, there wouldn’t be flooding. The plans had wells, windmills, solar panels on every home,” says Chief Albert.

The plans included heat pump to make use of geothermal heat and gray water systems to treat any water left over after washing clothes or bathing. Wind turbines were also planned. Traditional building methods were used to allow cooling airflow, reduce electricity dependence, and natural landscaping to prevent flooding. For example, a single mature Cypress tree will draw up 3,300 litres water per day.

The plans were not rewritten by the people who worked on them, but they did contain all the environmental and resilience features that experts and the tribe had spent six years compiling.

Once the funds were secured, the state retooled the plans and did “whatever the hell they wanted”, says Chief Albert.

“We treated it like any other subdivision,” says Pulaski, who suggested the resiliency features weren’t included partly because they were not in line with standard subdivision regulations. As federal HUD funds were awarded directly to the stateOnly the government has the final say, not the tribe.

Chief Albert Naquin, of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe, is sad that what was a promising plan for resettlement has effectively splintered him community [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Signed away property

Other aspects of the plan effectively displace tribe members and severe ties with their land. Residents who accept resettlement are not allowed to make “substantial” repairs – anything costing above $2,500 – to their traditional homes. This means that those who wish to move to safer ground must give up their traditional land, as their homes fall year after year. Chief Albert says there is “no reason” for this cruel stipulation.

Five years later, no new house was built.

That delay has done real damage to the tribe’s social cohesion. Residents who were willing to move were offered temporary housing for a period of two years. “It’s probably [been] four and a half years now,” mourns Chief Albert. “People have been scattered. I don’t know where to find them.” Some have been rehoused at a great distance, or in places where they feel unsafe.

It is, in some ways, a familiar, grim tale of displacement.

Chief Albert, sitting on his porch swing the day following his 75th birthday, noted that he had just finished reading the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.

The Indigenous peoples were already being decimated by the US Army, white settlers, and the Choctaw had to sign and cede land under threat from war.

The treaty pledged that “the United States agree to remove the Indians to their new homes…under the care of discreet and careful persons, who will be kind and brotherly to them.”

During their expulsion, up to 6,000 Indigenous people died on what a Choctaw chief called “a trail of tears and death”, partially because provisions promised by the government in the treaty were inadequate or non-existent. The 5,000 Choctaw who remained in Mississippi received almost none of the promised land allotments, instead reporting, “we have had our habitations torn down and burned.”

Chief Albert fears that Indigenous residents may not have understood the terms of their resettlement agreements.

However, certain types of development are still allowed on the Isle de Jean Charles. This was just last year. it built five fishing piersThere is a boat launch and parking areas along the road connecting the island to mainland. It runs for 4km (2.25 miles).

“I think they want to get the Indians out and put a fishing resort there,” he says. “I sat over here many a time, depressed, saying I need to do something, but what to do. What to do.”

Shrimper Michael Smith untangles its net. Smith, who was raised in Terrebonne Parish’s Pointe-aux-Chiens says he has no plans of leaving the area that is being impacted by worsening storms. [Delaney Nolan/Al Jazeera]

Resettling on their terms, rebuilding better

Last year, along with four other Indigenous groups including Isle de Jean Charles, Chief Shirell’s tribe filed a complaint with the UNAlleging that the US is violating their human right to not act on the damage climate change is causing to their communities.

In light of the hijacked Isle de Jean Charles resettlement plans and the failure by federal and state organisations to adequately support these communities in the wake of Ida, Chief Shirell has decided that, if and when the time comes to relocate, they will do so independent of state assistance, drawing partly on the Isle’s model of a green, sustainable settlement.

It is a daunting task. Chief Shirell is optimistic that it is possible. “We’re going to make sure we’re the ones who are able to lead for the sake of our people.”

Now, the rebuilding is the priority.

“We know we’re going to be in storms that are more frequent and more intense,” Chief Shirell says. “We’re using traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom from our own people, so we can rebuild better.”

Chief Shirell’s tribe and nearby Indigenous communities are working with community-level organisations for safe, environmentally sound and resilient rebuilding.

The communities are drawing upon hurricane-resistant approaches, such as using screws instead of nails to secure roofs, boards and floors, and looking to Indigenous ingenuity to develop floating, vertical, or hanging gardens, which can be raised with pulleys and secured underneath people’s elevated houses, where they’d be protected from tidal surges.

Kristina Peterson, a Lowlander Center worker with communities, said that an Indigenous elder in Grand Bayou came up with the idea of hanging gardens. She says that people used to pull up things from trees in the past, when the Parish was wooded.

The communities also learned how to wire and build a turbine manually to generate electricity for their homes. They also found a tower that could withstand hurricanes. It is likely that the turbine will be up this winter.

This development, too, drew on an elder’s wisdom about how tribal communities traditionally built with soft rather than hard materials so buildings would “breathe with the surrounding winds”, Peterson says. “[Tribal communities] knew their environment was not something to be conquered, but to live with.”

Chief Shirell’s tribe is developing a community centre that can also serve as an evacuation and post-hurricane housing shelter and is working with wind engineers to ensure it can withstand a Category 5 hurricane.

They will build a floating septic system, which would be safe from flooding, and they will work with Lowlander Center to start backfilling oil and gas canals to offset land loss.

“Our whole focus is resiliency, adaptation, and sustainability. Since time immemorial, that’s the way we function,” says Chief Shirell.

Before they can begin the work, they must assess the extent of the storm’s damage.

In the coming months, many will be forced to leave – the cost of rebuilding will be too great for some, and for others, increasingly precarious land and severe weather has become too difficult to withstand.

Of the parish’s 110,000 people, some 5,000 will move away, Guidry believes. “They’re moving with nothing,” he says.

“We’re losing our neighbours,” Chief Shirell notes, her voice softening as she looks out through the doorway of the Chauvin distribution centre where the sky is reddening over Bayou Petit Caillou.

The storm has been traumatising for almost everyone in the community – including her.

“I still haven’t grieved yet. I’ll do that eventually. Now, I can’t. I don’t have time for that. Every day, I’m thankful to our beloved Creator for strength. You just kind of tuck your pain away for a while and focus on what you need to do.”


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