Life on the Edge of Climate Change: An Up Close Look at Being Climate Refugees

If this tragedy can happen to us, who will it happen to next? Modern man has created the situation we are in, and it's up to modern man to fix it. Will we?
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To me, Isle de Jean Charles, located along the most southern tip of Louisiana, a place where the land meets the water and the Gulf is our backyard, is the most beautiful place on earth. I, along with the majority of my Tribe, have come to the realization that it is necessary to protect what little we have and that we cannot live there. Once a secluded Tribal Island Community with 300 plus inhabitants, we now have been reduced to 25 homes and 70 inhabitants.

The threat of Tropical Storm Karen loomed large for those who call the Isle home. While our lands escaped unscathed, our people did not. Facing a tropical system has always been a dance, but the pace of rising seas and sinking lands elevates this danger to a whole new level.

We are among the country's first climate change refugees. Climate change challenges us daily and continues to wipe out our Tribe's way of life.

In the two years I have held my position as Senior Public and Media Relations Liaison for my Tribe, The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Indians, the most important thing I take away from my experience is that climate change is affecting everyone everywhere. Temperatures are warming, waters are rising and pollution seems to increase with each passing year. Some may be ignoring this reality, but we don't have that luxury. When the water's edge is at your doorstep, sea level rise and extreme rainstorms aren't political, they're personal.

Our Island once measured 5 miles long by 12 miles wide. Now, 2 miles by 1 mile is a generous estimate of the land left. The ever-rising sea level coupled with quickly disappearing barrier marshlands has left us on the front line. Where the barrier marshlands once protected us, now our community is one of the few remaining protections for the mainland. In addition we lost 7 inches of soil this past year -- meaning we are sinking quickly. With each passing storm, the reality is that one day we will no longer have land to return to. Our ancestors buried on the Isle will be sitting on the Gulf floor.

These days, our disaster prep must be faster than ever. With a steady south wind and the surge coming at you, one has less than 20 minutes to get off the Isle before the lone connecting road is impassable. Protecting our valuables is burdensome, especially for the elderly and disabled. In a house that sits an average of 10 feet off the ground, furniture and appliances must be raised. Personal belongings are packed up. Owners of unraised homes must start over after the storm has passed. Even when a storm never becomes a disaster, like Karen, costs of preparation continue to mount.

Last year, we were hit by a minimal Cat. 1, Hurricane Isaac. No one expected the damage to be so widespread. It took me three days to get on the Island after the storm had passed. What I found when I got there left me saddened and angry. The young and old were hit hardest. Children were playing in knee-deep water, water still contaminated by the use of Corexit during the BP Spill, water that fishermen report is causing deformities in our seafood.

The emotional burden of not knowing what -- if anything -- one will return to is the worst. Walking into a home filled with mud and quickly growing mold presents a race against the clock, not to mention a health hazard. The rising temperatures associated with climate change only worsen the situation, leaving many to simply walk away.

Many ask why members of our Tribe have continued to stay. The answer is simple: Here our lands and homes pass from generation to generation, and our spiritual connection, our traditions and culture are deeply connected to this place. Here we live off the harvest from the waters and make our income from the same. The burden of losing your income and taking on the expense of starting over is crushing. Many who have had to make the hard decision to leave are forced to move in with family who have already relocated off the Isle.

Climate change intensifies all the challenges we already face as a non-income producing State Recognized Tribe. For us, this is nothing new really. Gulf Restoration plans do not address funding for Tribe relocation, nor protecting people from the effects of climate change. What we stand to lose is the fabric that has held us together for generations. We know that a bigger storm is coming, and with it what is left of our Tribal land and our home will disappear.

The local manifestations of climate change on my tribe's home, Isle de Jean Charles, threaten to wipe out what's left of our shared culture. If this tragedy can happen to us, who will it happen to next? Modern man has created the situation we are in, and it's up to modern man to fix it. Will we?

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