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Leaving Paradise

Kathleen Flynn

In 2016, the people living on the tiny Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana became the nation’s first official “climate refugees”, thanks to a federal grant that gives them a chance to move to higher ground – away from the rising water that threatens their two-century-old Gulf Coast community.

 

But residents say they only feel at home when they are near water and family. Can their new community provide both? Albert Naquin would like to think so. But what’s most clear to him is that island he loves will soon be inhabitable.

 

The older people on the island, most of whom are elderly, all struggle with the idea of leaving. Those who have agreed to move so far are driven by another motivation: their children. But island families are concerned that the state will consider its job done once it provides just enough housing to hold the 27 families now on the island. Indeed, that seems to be the plan.

 

In 1946, when Naquin was ushered into the world, Isle de Jean Charles was 22,000 acres of dense, forested marshland. Even when Naquin was young, the oil rig helicopter pilots flying overhead could identify Isle de Jean Charles as a distinct mass of green with a thread of blue running through it. The community’s only thoroughfare, Island Road, was built following the curves of that blue thread, the island’s bayou. Still today, the road and bayou wind along together, two gentle S shapes running the length of what is now a very slender spit of land that will soon be overcome by the backdrop of blue that surrounds it. In fact, the island is a mere 2% of the size it was just 50 years ago. Scientists say that it’s one of the fastest-eroding spots on earth.