For Houma people, displacement looms with every storm

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

Major hurricanes including Katrina and Ida battered the region Relief efforts have struggled to cope with the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed more than 1,800 people along the Gulf Coast, washed away coastal land and caused more than $100 billion in damage. The only road to the island’s mainland is often impassable due to strong winds and rising waters. Water capture makes growing food difficult.

Now, a small number of citizens live on Isle de Jean Charles, Dardar said. “We’re losing land here in Louisiana β€” a football field every 90 minutes,” said Darder, a former chief of the United Houma Nation, which has about 17,000 members. “Now it’s faster than that.”

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

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

The Houma Nation is not recognized by the federal government as a tribe, but federal standards changes in 2015 may ease the hurdles to federal status for the tribe, more than 35 years after its initial application.

The recognition will allow Houma to work directly with the federal government rather than through intermediaries to secure resources, said Lanor Kurol, a member of the Houma Nation who oversees its day-to-day operations. He said direct communication with federal officials during an emergency can save valuable time in delivering critical relief to communities like Houma.

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

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill released at least 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico., The incident devastated the people of Houma. It has polluted the region, destroyed ecosystems, threatened commercial fisheries and exposed people to toxins known to cause cancer. But after that environmental disaster, BP, the company that uses the drilling rig, doesn’t have to directly compensate 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 come from a historic tribe and that they are a distinct community. University of North Dakota law professor Dan Lewerenz said the lack of federal recognition means the government does not view Houma as a self-governing sovereign entity.

Houma leaders say the state of the community is a barrier to getting support to address the climate emergency. 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 stress.

Serious health concerns related to climate change include e. Waterborne infections such as coli and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and West Nile virus are problems that plague waterlogged communities.

Haumaras are not eligible for care through the Indian Health Service, with already slim 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 disparities among indigenous peoples to intergenerational traumas, with younger generations exhibiting poor health outcomes linked to the experiences of their ancestors. Historical traumas experienced by indigenous peoples in the United States include genocide and displacement.

In vulnerable communities along the coast, people often don’t have the extra cash they need to rebuild after a storm, putting them at risk of losing their homes. The cost of infrastructure repairs can be astronomical, forcing some people to move elsewhere and further choking off already resource-poor communities from necessities like schools and doctors.

“There are very few grocery stores in Bayouce,” says Shannondora Billiot, who studies the effects of environmental change on the health of Louisiana’s indigenous peoples. “A lot of people have to drive 30 to 45 minutes to get to the nearest grocery store to get fresh fruit, fresh vegetables because a lot of people can’t grow those vegetables on their land.”

Billiot’s research on the Houma Nation showed that repeated exposure to environmental disasters affected people’s mental health, and he observed a “sadness” in some members that he likened to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “Climate change disrupts the protective factors of culture and identity on cultural expression and health,” Billiot said.

Jobs are scarce, and the cost of flood insurance β€” a necessity in coastal areas β€” is so high that some people can no longer afford their homes. Expensive flood insurance premiums helped push Kurol from his home in Golden Meadow, Louisiana. “I was going to spend as much on insurance every month as I would on a house note,” he said. “And I couldn’t afford it.”

In August 2021, Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 hurricane with 150 mph winds, made landfall just 20 miles south of Golden Meadow. Nearly 16 years since Hurricane Katrina, Ida has caused widespread damage, overwhelming preparedness and relief efforts.

For coastal residents like Houma, each year can bring the next big storm, and the likelihood of that happening is increasing as climate change accelerates. Hurricane season typically peaks in September and October, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“They roll up their sleeves and build, rebuild and help their neighbors and basically start over,” Billiot said. β€œAnd they’re supposed to be resilient for that. However, citizens have spoken, ‘I don’t want to be resilient.’

This article includes reports by Taylor Cook, Jack Dyer, and Dr. Celine Gounder that “Climate displacement, cultural resilienceEpisode of the “American Diagnosis” podcast.

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