For the people of Houma, displacement comes with every storm

For generations, Thomas Dardard Jr.’s family lived on a small island off the coast of Louisiana called Isle de Jean Charles. Environmental changes, rising seas and storms have dramatically altered the island. Home to members of the Houma United Nation, the island is now about 320 acres, part of the more than 22,000 acres it was in the mid-20th century.

Huge hurricanes, including Katrina and Ida, hit the area. Relief efforts have struggled with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed more than 1,800 people along the Gulf Coast, swept coastal land and caused more than $100 billion in damage. The island’s only road to the mainland is often impassable due to strong winds and rising water. The intrusion of water made it difficult to grow food.

Only a small number of citizens now live on Isle de Jean Charles, Dardar said. “We’re losing ground here in Louisiana — we used to say a football field every 90 minutes,” said Dardar, a former head of the United Huma Nation, which has about 17,000 members. “Now it’s faster than that.”

In 2016, the Louisiana state government received a federal grant to help resettle island residents, including Houma. Some people don’t want to move. For many others, moving is a struggle.

Displaced by the loss of land, infrastructure and cultural heritage along Louisiana’s southern coast, members of the Houma United Nation are among those in the region most vulnerable to climate change and its health impacts. Health advocates fear the consequences could be worse for indigenous people, who have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and some other health problems than white people.

The Houma Nation is not recognized by the federal government as a tribe, but a 2015 change in federal standards could ease barriers to the tribe’s federal status, more than 35 years after it was first implemented.

That recognition would allow the Houma to work directly with the federal government rather than through intermediaries to secure resources, said Lanor Curole, a member of the Houma Nation who oversees its day-to-day operations. Direct communication with federal officials during an emergency can save valuable time to provide critical assistance to communities like Houma, she said.

“Our people are on that front line, but we don’t have a seat at that table,” she said.

In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released at least 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the incident wreaked havoc on the people of Houma. It polluted the region, destroyed ecosystems, threatened commercial fisheries and exposed people to toxic substances known to cause cancer. But after that environmental disaster, BP, the company using the drilling rig, was not required to pay compensation directly to the Houma because the tribe is not one of the 574 recognized by the federal government.

For federal recognition, tribes must prove that they meet several criteria, including that their members are descended from a historic tribe and that they are a distinct community. Dan Leverenz, a law professor at the University of North Dakota, said the lack of federal recognition means the government does not see Houma as a self-governing sovereign entity.

Houma leaders said the community’s status has become a barrier to getting support to deal with climate emergencies. Meanwhile, the Chitimacha, a federally recognized tribe in the region, partnered with the federal government in 2016 to develop an adaptation plan to address climate pressures.

Serious health concerns related to climate change include waterborne infections such as E. coli and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and West Nile virus, problems that plague communities flooded with water.

The Houma do not qualify for care through the Indian Health Service, hampering already scarce options in the region. According to a 2010 community needs assessment conducted by the tribe, more than half of Houma members have cardiovascular disease.

Health researchers and social scientists have linked health inequities among Indigenous peoples to intergenerational trauma, with younger generations exhibiting poor health outcomes related to their ancestors’ experiences. Historical traumas experienced by indigenous people in the US include genocide and displacement.

In vulnerable coastal communities, people often lack the extra cash needed to rebuild after a storm, putting them at risk of losing their homes. Infrastructure repair costs can be astronomical, forcing some people to relocate and leaving already resource-poor communities further deprived of necessities like schools and doctors.

“There are very few grocery stores along the bay,” said Shanondora Billiot, who studies the effects of environmental change on the health of local populations in Louisiana. “A lot of people have to drive 30 to 45 minutes to get to the nearest grocery store with fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, because a lot of people can’t grow those vegetables on their land anymore.”

Billiot’s research on the Houma Nation found that repeated exposure to environmental disasters affected people’s mental health, and she noticed a “sadness” among some members that she compared to PTSD symptoms. “Climate change is disrupting the expression of culture and the protective factors that culture and identity have on health,” Billiot said.

Jobs are scarce and the cost of flood insurance — a requirement in coastal areas — is so high that some people can no longer afford their homes. Expensive flood insurance premiums helped push Curole out of her home in Golden Meadow, Louisiana. “I would spend just as much a month on insurance as I would on a note on a house,” she said. “And I couldn’t afford that.”

In August 2021, Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds, made landfall just 20 miles south of Golden Meadow. Almost 16 years to the day after Hurricane Katrina, Ida caused massive damage, massive preparations and relief efforts.

For coastal residents like Houma, each year can lead to the next big storm, and as climate change accelerates, that’s increasingly likely to happen. Hurricane season typically peaks in September and October, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They’re rolling up their sleeves and building and rebuilding and helping their neighbors, and basically starting over,” Billiot said. “And they are considered resistant to it. However, citizens have talked about: “I don’t want to be durable.”

This article features reporting by Taylor Cook, Zach Dyer and Dr. Celine Gunder and first appeared on “Climate change, cultural resilience” episode of the “American Diagnosis” podcast.

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