I’m thrilled that my essay “Between Worlds,” about members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe who live (or used to live) on Isle de Jean Charles in coastal Louisiana, is up at Orion Magazine alongside Michel Varisco’s extraordinary photos. We were both profoundly moved by the people we met for this project and by the beauty of their vanishing homeland.
“For Hurricane Audrey, I was young,” says Boyo, recalling the largest and deadliest June hurricane in US history, in 1957. “[Audrey] was the first time they had water on top of the land over here; maybe a foot and a half, two foot at the most.” Since then, hurricanes have routinely flooded the island, and for a while residents rode out storms in wash buckets and wooden canoes, called pirogues, that they tied to their houses. When the water rose, the islanders floated. Long-gone forests protected them from the winds.
Since 1998, Terrebonne Parish, which includes Isle de Jean Charles, has suffered a presidentially declared natural disaster every two or three years. Climate change has made hurricanes more dangerous, slower moving with heavier rains and higher winds. Waves wash waist high, breaking gas and power lines and gobbling chunks of the road. Storm surges, no longer softened by barrier islands, run boats aground and sweep furniture into yards. The only safe option is to evacuate, though not everyone does.
“Every time there’s a flood, we lose everything,” says Damian Naquin, a nineteen-year-old tribe member from nearby Pointeaux-Chenes. “We don’t have any valuables. We know, if we get something, the next storm that comes through, it’s going to ruin it. It’s going to carry it away.”
After each big storm, tired of the constant rebuilding and the worry, a few more families go. The homes that remain are perched fourteen feet up on stilts, above the floodlines, but even their time is limited. Scientists predict that by 2050, the island will be gone.