People, planet, and the path ahead
Reggie Dupre, executive director of the Terrebonne Levee & Conservation District, gives a tour of the Bubba Dove Houma Navigation Canal Floodgate on May 25, 2017 in Dulac, La. The floodgate protects Terrebonne Parish from storm surges that could swamp the area.
Ann Hermes/Staff
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Tactical retreat? As seas rise, Louisiana faces hard choices.

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As rising seas encroach on the Louisiana coast with increasing regularity, state managers face difficult choices about whom to relocate – and how.

Growing up in the small bayou town of Pointe-aux-Chenes, Reggie Dupre has always considered the residents of the neighboring Isle de Jean Charles community as something like a step-family. With only about 10 miles of bayou separating them in Terrebonne Parish, he would go to the same churches and schools as them. They even shared a voting precinct.

“The island is an extension of the Pointe-aux-Chenes community,” he says.

This is what made cutting Isle de Jean Charles out from the parish’s new expansive levee protection system – which Mr. Dupre is helping construct as head of the Terrebonne Levee and Conservation District – all the more painful for him.

“It’s always been for me a bit of personal dilemma that I’m the chief executive of the agency responsible for building a system that excludes the island,” he adds.

Fortunately, the predominantly Native American Isle de Jean Charles community is getting help from elsewhere: namely, in the form of a $48 million grant from the federal government to help them permanently relocate.

The grant was “a big relief” personally, Dupre says, but while the community has made international headlines as America’s first official “climate refugees,” Dupre has been shifting his focus to the host of other communities in Terrebonne Parish that are facing similar dangers and weighing the decisions that families on Isle de Jean Charles have already made: stay and adapt? Or relocate to higher ground? If they choose to relocate, how?

Residents of Louisiana are on the front lines of climate change in the United States. If sea levels continue to rise as climate models predict – by as much as five feet by 2100 – residents of coastal cities from Boston and New York to Miami and San Francisco may soon be asking themselves these same questions. And they are likely to look to Louisiana for answers. In that sense, Isle de Jean Charles has become the nation’s first test case in how to manage retreat.

“We want to learn as much as we can so other communities can do it more successfully in the future, less expensively in the future, and more efficiently in the future,” says Pat Forbes, executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development (OCD), the department tasked with ensuring the relocation happens before the grant expires in 2022.

Managed retreat

Ideally, state officials want a managed retreat to check three main boxes: moving the community out of harm’s way, ensuring the community is economically sustainable in its new location, and preserving as much of the community’s culture and identity as possible.

A core difference between managed retreat and unmanaged retreat is that it allows for retaining a community’s cultural and social fabric after a relocation, which can in turn make the potentially traumatic process more bearable.

“The more we learn about resilience, it has way more to do with community cohesiveness than any infrastructure we can build,” says Mr. Forbes.

Ensuring that relocated communities are economically sustainable is perhaps the most urgent challenge, however. Crucially, state officials hope that this aspect of managed retreat could attract support from the private sector. Because if it costs $48 million to relocate 25 families, what could the cost be for larger communities?

“Like founding any new town over the course of Western history … it’s all wrapped around the idea of, ‘How do we generate revenue? How do we build an economy?’ ” says Mathew Sanders, resilience policy and program director for the OCD.

In Louisiana, that could mean fitness companies, pharmacies, and supermarkets chip in with funding in exchange for footholds in the new community, much like a city would on a new real estate development.

“Unlocking that financial [support] is something that will determine the success of [relocation] projects,” adds Mr. Sanders. “Ultimately we want to show that there would be the same amount of incentives the private sector has every time in any real estate development.”

Empire eroding

The ability to relocate whole communities en masse may help prevent what is happening to communities like Empire, La., where the permanent population has slowly declined over time – in lockstep with a decline in economic activity.

Located near the southern tip of Plaquemines Parish, the town is the second-largest commercial fishing hub in the country outside Alaska, but the population has dropped from more than 2,800 in 2000 to less than 1,000 in 2010, according to Census data.

A fisherman casts a line after work on May 26 in Empire, La. As the town's marshland has washed into the swelling Gulf of Mexico, residents of Empire have gradually moved away.
Ann Hermes/Staff
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Richie Blink is one of those who left. The son of a commercial fisherman, he grew up in the waters around Empire, starting so young he had to stand on a five-gallon bucket to see over the bow of his father’s boat. He watched the marshland slowly wash away throughout his childhood, with hurricane Katrina destroying his high school months after he graduated. He now works for the National Wildlife Federation in New Orleans as a local outreach coordinator, and splits his time between the city and the house he still maintains in Empire as a weekend home.

“What does a transition look like? How does one move inland?” he asks. “I think my generation maybe is kind of stuck in the middle. I’m probably going to try and maintain a [weekend home] there as long as I’m alive, but I could see future generations not even willing to try.”

Philip Simmons has stayed in Empire, mostly so he can take care of his father, and he’s been working to secure a future elsewhere for seven years, after leaving the lucrative but unpredictable commercial fishing business for the Plaquemines Parish Ferry Department.

Relaxing in Alex’s Lounge – an ocean-blue corrugated metal box in the middle of town – one afternoon in late May, the sweat patches on his work shirt and the glaring sunburn on his round cheeks illustrate the grueling hours Mr. Simmons is working now as both a mechanic and a part-time deckhand.

“I’ve got three more years, then I’ll be invested with the parish … [and] I can draw retirement,” he says.

The state has a few projects in the works to better protect Empire, including two giant sediment diversions intended to rebuild tens of thousands of acres of land in the region.

Sediment diversions take years, however, and both Simmons and Mr. Blink want a more immediate defense: moving the town onto a large mound a dozen feet above sea level.

Left-field ideas fly through the smoky air in Alex’s Lounge. Zane Melancon, sitting next to Simmons and sipping out of a Styrofoam cup, suggests they should build a beach at a nearby marina to help boost tourism.

“But there’s no land out there no more,” Simmons replies.

Mr. Melancon eventually agrees. “It won’t take no Katrina,” he says, referring to the 2005 hurricane that thrashed the Louisiana coast. “It’ll take a little storm like [hurricane] Isaac to take this place down.” 

“If I get done like I did for Katrina I won’t be back,” Simmons says. “I’m not starting over from scratch again.”

Blink is optimistic that Empire could still avoid that fate, however.

"I have a lot of faith in the [state] that they’re going to come together and figure out how to make these really tough choices, and how to live in a better way," he says.

This report is the second installment of a four-part series. For the first installment, watch the video below. Click here for Part 3, a look at Louisiana's $50 billion master plan to protect and restore the coastline. And click here for Part 4, a window into one archaeologist's efforts to document Louisiana's coastal history before it washes away.