The plans are grand — a brand new community with homes, baseball fields, fishing ponds, a meeting hall and a solar farm to generate electricity to sell.
They’re part of a $48 million project funded by the federal government to move a few dozen families whose homes are disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico.
A tract of land has been bought and surveys are underway before the building starts and families move in over the next year or two.
But Chris Brunet doesn’t want to go.
As he looks out across the disappearing sliver of land called Isle de Jean Charles, he says the multimillion-dollar project to create a new community for him and his neighbors is not an opportunity to be grabbed but a hard decision that has to be taken.
The isle is the only home he’s ever known.
His parents lived there. And theirs. And theirs.
“The scenery and the setting to be raised in as a child, and play outside and all of this here, … (it’s) just a real good upbringing,” Brunet says.
The island is flat and open. Breezes stir the Spanish moss hanging from old trees and rattle wind chimes. Time here is marked by storms. At one point, houses were built on the ground, then some were raised on short piers. Then came Hurricanes Isidore and Lili and the homes had to be put on higher stilts. By the time Gustav smashed through, most of the houses had been lifted.
But still this land, settled by Native Americans when they were forced from their ancestral areas onto the Trail of Tears nearly two centuries ago, is disappearing.
Rising seas, subsidence and erosion have seen 98% of the surface of Isle de Jean Charles smothered by water since 1950. And it’s not stopping.
So Brunet made his decision and plans to move 40 miles north and inland along with perhaps 20 other families to the new settlement paid for by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“It’s a nice piece of property,” he says, adding however, “it’s not this. You can’t go there and remake this. There’s no, there’s no possible way.”
The property is also open and flat. Spanish moss still hangs from the trees. But any birdsong has to compete with the noise of the traffic from Highway 24 that runs along one side of the tract. There’s a bayou, but Brunet laughs as he says, “I just see a ditch.”
The land used to be sugarcane fields, but now it will be a “hugely important pioneer project,” says Pat Forbes, executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development. The people of Isle de Jean Charles will not be the last to have to move because of climate change.
Because it’s the first government project of its kind, it will be more expensive but it also offers opportunities, Forbes says.
“One of the main objectives is to enhance the culture that the community once had and help them have an opportunity to come back to some semblance of that here,” he tells CNN.
But he knows that some islanders will move reluctantly, and some not at all.
“I can’t blame them. They grew up there. They see that they can still live there right now and, and they want to live the rest of their lives there.”
Chantel Comardelle hopes some facets of island life — like children playing with cousins and extended family — can be recreated on the mainland. But her own grandmother, 94, has no intention of moving so she knows some things will be lost.
“We don’t know how to move people with deep roots,” she says. “I mean that’s the emotional, spiritual, social and cultural level.
“We have to figure out how to do that because there’s other communities that are deep rooted and as leaders we have to figure out how to do that good, and right.”
Isle de Jean Charles is likely to be submerged within the lifetimes of the children now scampering around it. Their move may be followed by the villagers of Shishmaref in Alaska, who have voted twice to relocate their community inland before it is swamped by rising seas, though they have no way to make that happen.
But one day, it won’t be villages thinking of relocation, it will be cities, says Tor Tornqvist, chair of Earth and Environmental Science at Tulane University.
“What maybe five years ago was the worst-case scenario is now what we might call a fairly likely scenario,” he says of the impacts predicted by the latest climate change research.
Tulane’s home of New Orleans will be affected, lying as it does largely below sea level.
“But the reality is that there are other, even larger cities that may actually be even more vulnerable, like Miami for example,” Tornqvist says.
“All these cities are going to face dramatic changes, and we’re going to see large migrations of their inhabitants, probably later this century.”
And that’s when some of the effects of rising seas could be felt in places hundreds of miles from any ocean, says Mark Davis, Tornqvist’s Tulane colleague and director of the university’s Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy
“If I’m in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and I’m thinking, this isn’t such a bad place to be in a changing world, they may be right. But if your goods can’t get to market because there’s no New Orleans to send your goods to, or if you’re depending upon fertilizers and fuels that come from here, and those plants are located here, … then you are going to be affected by what happens in places like this, whether you’re thinking about it or not.”
And while no one can know exactly what will happen, there will undoubtedly be widespread impact of climate change, he says.
“Anyone who thinks we’re going to live through the next 50 to 100 years without dramatic change, you know, is not paying attention.”