POINTE AUX CHÊNES, La. — Jutting into the Gulf of Mexico approximately two hours south of New Orleans, the Isle de Jean Charles can be found where the road ends and the water begins.
There’s no sign. You know you’ve made it when the brown-green marsh stops blurring past the windows and you find yourself suddenly exposed and within eyesight of the horizon.
A 3-mile ribbon of asphalt stretches forward, marking the only road in or out of the settlement of stilted fish camps. On either side, stone-gray gulf water laps mere feet away from the paved surface. The water is level with the road. And the storm named Barry has yet to hit.
“We’re going to get some water,” said Anthony Verdun, who grew up on the island and spent Friday preparing for a storm.
Isle de Jean Charles was once a 22,000-acre saltwater oasis accessible only by boat. Thought to have been settled by Native Americans in the early 1800s and again after the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the island is now home to two kinds of people: those who occasionally visit and the natives who never left.
But the island has shrunk to 300 acres since 1955, losing 98 percent of its land to a combination of erosion and rising sea levels that have made the community a poster child for global warming.
In 2016, the federal government designated $48 million toward a plan to relocate the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe from their ancestral home, making them the first climate change refugees in U.S. history.
Verdun, a member of the tribe, now lives elsewhere two-thirds of the year. In his lifetime, he’s seen the island change.
“You see how narrow the road is? We lost 50 feet of road (width). And we lost 2 miles at the end over the past 20 years,” Verdun said. “If you came here 20 years or 30 years ago and saw how different it was (…) Everyone was laughing when Al Gore talked about climate change. I don’t think anyone is laughing anymore.”
While the plan for relocation may remain mired in political squabbles, the more pronounced difficulties come with trying to decide how to pack home and culture. Tropical Storm Barry marks the beginning of another hurricane season. And as the winds began to whip across the island Friday morning, they carried a familiar question for residents: Is it time to leave?
Two houses away from where the road ends at the sea, Lee and Linda Morvant worked hastily to hurricane-proof their camp, moving furniture and other household items out of areas open to wind and rain.
Linda grabbed a rocking chair and started toward the stairs.
“No, no, that’s going to fly,” Lee Morvant said as he walked out of the storage shed beneath the house. “Put it in here.”
The Raceland residents bought the camp three years ago. It was what they could afford, said Lee Morvant, a retired construction worker. It has its benefits; they enjoy having a place to relax and toss hooks at schools of redfish and speckled trout, he said.
But the constant flooding is more like catching a hardhead catfish, a problem that keeps popping up despite the number of times you throw it back.
“It floods at high tide,” Lee Morvant said, with the cracked mud beneath his feet making the point for him. Standing next to her husband on the dock, Linda Morvant said the prospect of being shut in, with nowhere to go is likely for those who stay. “There’s only one way in and one way out,” she said. “If it covers the road, that’s it. You’re stuck.”
Of the 40 or so driveways on the island, most were empty of cars on Friday, telltale signs of an evacuation from Barry or from the island itself.
Still some residents remained. Many of them were born on the island and have never entertained the thought of living somewhere else.
Edison Dardar, who like Verdun is a descendant from one of the island’s four founding families, said he didn’t need to get supplies because he always keeps a stockpile. Down the road, his nephew and sister were also still home.
“You gotta eat every day, hurricane or no hurricane,” he said smiling, his French-tinged accent emphasizing the “cane.”
From Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to Ike and Gustave in 2008, Dardar has several times seen the island submerged. And if he expected Barry to be a storm of equivalent force, he admitted evacuation plans would have been a priority.
But as far as permanently relocating, he was steadfast.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Dardar said. “It’s my home. Why would I go someplace where I don’t know nothing? This place is as good as any other place.”
Verdun, however, is one of many who now spends most of his time away from the marsh where he grew up.
For him, the writing is on the walls of the houses ripped away from their stilts and the trees turned white by saltwater.
“It’s definitely inevitable. In less than 20 years, everybody will be gone from here. It’s part of life. You can’t cry about it. You have to move on,” Verdun said.
But for now, Verdun will spend at least one more storm on Isle de Jean Charles, weathering the coming hurricane like he has many times.
“We’ve got water, a couple gallons of daiquiris,” Verdun said. “We’re going to go fishing before it gets here. Specks are biting good, the reds.
“It’s going to be alright. It’s nothing. I’m from here.”
News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at email@example.com.
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