The Residents of This Louisiana Island Are America’s First “Climate Refugees”

As the sea levels rise, these photos provide a big picture view of a place losing the battle against climate change

Louisiana is spending $42.5 million to rebuild the marshes in the Grand Liard Bayou. Without the project, the land was expected to disappear entirely by 2050. Ben Depp
Struggling cypress trees on Pecan Island, about 140 miles west of New Orleans. After Hurricane Rita, salt water seeped into the marsh and killed most of the trees in the area. Ben Depp
The disappearing road to the Isle de Jean Charles. The U.S. Geological Survey has reported that Louisiana is losing a football field's worth of land every hour. Ben Depp
Unlike many coastal areas, Wax Lake Delta has no dams blocking sediment from washing back. As a result, its marshes are actually growing instead of shrinking. Ben Depp
Louisiana’s barrier island beaches are among the fastest-eroding shorelines in the world, receding at rates of 30 feet per year. Ben Depp
Isle de Jean Charles, once miles wide and surrounded by wetlands, is now a strip of houses surrounded by mostly open water. Ben Depp
Venice, Louisiana, nicknamed the “the End of the World,” used to be surrounded by miles of wetlands that acted as a protective barrier for storms. Ben Depp
Known to locals as ghost trees, oaks and cypress killed by salt-water intrusion can no longer play their critical role of holding soil in place. Ben Depp
Elmer’s Island, heavily polluted by oiled after the BP oil spill, protects miles of wetlands. Ben Depp
Oil from one of the 1,500 spills reported each year in Louisiana floats in a bayou. Ben Depp
A fishing boat lies marooned near Venice, Louisiana, the southernmost town on the Mississippi River accessible by car. Venice was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Ben Depp
Half of the 188 animals federally recognized as endangered or threatened depend on wetlands for survival. Seventeen of these are bird species. Ben Depp
Few residents have returned to Delacroix Island after hurricanes destroyed homes, reducing the width of the island by more than half. Ben Depp
Sand from Rutherford Beach, a barrier island shoreline, washed into this cow pasture during a tsunami caused by a rapid change in barometric pressure. Water rose six feet in a few minutes. Ben Depp
Most of the wetlands loss in Southern Louisiana is a result of canals cut by the oil and gas industry (pictured, the remains of the canals and infrastructure). Ben Depp

Isle de Jean Charles, in southern Louisiana, is linked to the mainland by a long, straight road. When I first set out across it, there was a strip of wetlands on either side. But as I continued, the water closed in, lapping at the edges of the asphalt.

The island is home to about 60 members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian tribe. The land around them is rapidly disappearing. As I approached, I saw boats deteriorating in people’s yards, the nautical equivalent of rusting washing machines. The houses were all on stilts. Some were intact. Others were in ruins, their walls blown away, their stairs leading up to wooden frames open to the sky.

Louisiana is losing 75 square kilometers of coastal terrain every year, and the residents of this island have been called the first “climate refugees” in the United States. They’re unlikely to be the last. Other Gulf Coast states are also surrendering land to the water at a rapid rate. And up north, the 350 villagers of Newtok, Alaska, are hoping to move to higher ground. But Isle de Jean Charles is the first American community to be awarded federal funding—$48 million—to relocate en masse. There are tentative plans to move the tribe to northern Terrebonne Parish; the state of Louisiana and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are still negotiating the details.

Rising sea levels are partly to blame for the island’s disappearance; plus the process has been hastened by a century and a half of engineering the river with levees, which has deprived the delta of the very sediment that made it, and the many canals dredged by the oil industry, which let salt water into the marsh. This kills the plants at their roots, leaving the loose ground to erode into the bayou. Among the most striking sights I saw on the island were the denuded oaks reaching into the sky. Their bare branches stretched out in arabesques that evoked the human figure. They seemed especially alive in death, like something from Pompeii.

I approached a home belonging to Wenceslaus Billiot Sr., an 89-year-old former boat builder who has lived his whole life on the island. His house was intact, with a front porch and two rocking chairs. He greeted me in a voice heavily accented by his French dialect. The words were English, but the melody was something else entirely.

“Way back in the old days,” he told me, throwing his arm out toward the sea that lay just beyond the road, “you had trees. There was no bay. All this water used to be marsh.”

“The water, the marsh, having to move away—what do you make of it all?” I asked.

He told me he isn’t sure he wants to go. “I built this house in the 1960s,” he said. “I have another I built in ’49. I built it all.” But as we talked, the rain began to come down in sheets and he repeated a prediction he’d heard: By 2100, New Orleans itself will be underwater.

I had trouble grasping just how dramatically Billiot’s surroundings were disappearing until I saw these photographs by Ben Depp. When you are driving through the flat terrain of southern Louisiana, it’s hard to perceive the long stretches where water is encroaching. Some of the most vulnerable areas are also dense and swampy, which makes them hard to navigate on the ground. Depp realized that soon after he moved to New Orleans in 2013 after spending a few years in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. “Unless one is overhead,” he wrote to me, “it is impossible to truly situate oneself.” 

Depp now photographs the coast from a 30-foot paraglider with a 19-horsepower engine that looks like it’s “part lawn mower, part vacuum.” A five-day course in Florida taught him to fly it in a way that, as he put it, “makes it most likely that you won’t hurt yourself.” 

To take off, he runs with the motor strapped to his back while pulling strings on the wing so it fills with air. He can stay aloft for hours at a time. “It feels as though I am sitting in a patio chair suspended in the air,” he told me. He prefers to shoot just after dawn or before dusk. This helps him achieve the nearly surreal effect seen in some of these aerial images: The sun is low enough that the water is in shade, but what lies above it is touched by the light—tall grass, a boat on its side, a toppled oak tree.

Studying Depp’s pictures of the bayou, I saw them as a kind of war photography. These dreamy, surreal perspectives of a slowly submerging world are scenes of conflict. They exert a fascination from which we turn away, until we become personally engulfed in that reality. Most of us live on safe ground. But we live with the knowledge of an encroaching tide.     

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