The Louisiana Indigenous community fighting for hurricane justice
After Hurricane Ida, Chief Shirell and her tribe aim to rebuild even as sinking land and government neglect imperil their survival.
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Chauvin, United States – Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar knew that her house was gone before she got there.
On August 29, when Hurricane Ida made landfall with winds howling at 240 kph and ripped through southern Louisiana, Chief Shirell was with eight family members hunkering down an hour’s drive north from her home in Chauvin. Even there, 100km from landfall, the winds shrieked, trees toppled, and power lines came down as the family prayed in the living room.
After the storm cleared, Chief Shirell, her husband, and their two children drove home.
They passed through Houma, the largest city in their parish of Terrebonne, where trees leaned atop houses, and brick walls had collapsed across roads. Further south, the bayous – slow-moving brackish waterways found in southern Louisiana and normally filled with crawfish, shrimp, and alligators – were filled with sunken, damaged boats.
In towns like theirs, built like thin strips along either side of the bayous, trailers were ripped open or gone, construction debris and the contents of people’s lives scattered across marshy yards. Towering, 100-year-old live oaks lay on top of homes.
Many houses had been built atop 12-foot stilts to protect them from water, but now, the stilts held up nothing; flights of stairs climbed to nowhere. Utility poles had snapped at the base, leaving snarls of wire. There was no electricity and no running water. There wouldn’t be for weeks and in some places, months. The destruction stretched on and on for kilometres.
“The further down you came, the worse it got. I knew. Before I even got there, I knew,” says Chief Shirell.
When she got to their house, the roof was gone. Everything inside was drenched. She was struck by the caprice of the storm: in their destroyed debris-covered bathroom, her bathrobe still hung neatly on its hook behind the door. They never did find their roof.
She recalls feeling “numb”.
“All I could think about was how many people were without homes.”
Never a worse storm
Chief Shirell, 41, is the leader of the Grand Caillou/Dulac tribe, one of three distinct but related Indigenous communities that comprise the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw confederation, whose homelands are in Louisiana.
She was appointed Chief by her elders when she was just 29. “My job is to carry my people’s voice where they need to go. To ensure that our generations have a future,” she says.
That responsibility is heavy today.
The three tribes – hers, the Isle de Jean Charles and the Bayou Lafourche tribes, named for the lands they inhabit – took the brunt of Hurricane Ida. While this area regularly sees hurricanes and storm damage, elders who have lived there all their lives say they had never seen a worse one. Thousands of people were displaced in southern Louisiana and the storm left a swath of destruction and catastrophic flooding as far north as New York.
While none of the 1,003 members of Chief Shirell’s tribe lost their lives, hundreds lost their homes.
Chief Shirell and her family moved into her mother’s house, but others had nowhere to go. Some slept in tents near their damaged homes, or in vehicles.
Official responders, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), weren’t fast enough to meet people’s needs in the immediate aftermath. It would be months before the first temporary shelters from FEMA arrived.
“These systems don’t move as quickly as people need them to, and that’s just reality,” says Chief Shirell. “We don’t have time to wait for FEMA. You need people on the ground immediately.”
So Chief Shirell got to work organising relief efforts for her community. She started creating a list of those who had been left houseless and searching for campers and travel trailers to shelter people. She learned about who needed help in the close-knit community through word of mouth.
In Chauvin, she converted a large warehouse, normally used for a veterans’ nonprofit, into a distribution hub for donated goods such as generators, petrol, bottled water, and canned food. Her husband and children pitch in there, as well.
Months after the storm, the bayou communities still looked as though the storm happened last week. Massive piles of debris lined the main road in Chauvin where houses sat across from their own torn-off roofs.
Chief Shirell says the number of people who are without houses “is still rising”, with mould and rainy weather further destroying damaged homes as people wait for funds from government agencies and insurance companies to rebuild. “FEMA has their process, but nature has her own process.”
Tribe members say they have had to be largely self-reliant, and that the recovery process will stretch on for months – even years. The tribe must rebuild as they fight for government recognition of their ancestral rights in a region where the climate crisis is causing the land beneath their feet to disappear.
‘Not their first rodeo’
The three Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes have lived in the Louisiana bayous for hundreds of years. They are all headquartered within a 25km (16-mile) radius of one another in Terrebonne Parish, and while each tribe has their own separate tribal council, members have close ties.
The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are themselves descendants of several tribes, including the Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw, Acolapissa, and Atakapa: tribes that were displaced and decimated by a series of ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out by the US government throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The Acolapissa is now classified as extinct.
In the early 1800s, the Terrebonne area saw a further influx of white settlers and speculators, and Indigenous communities dispersed in search of safety: some went east, and became the Isle de Jean Charles or Bayou Lafourche tribes; others went west, eventually settling around Bayou Grand Caillou and Dulac. The three tribes united to form the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw confederation to assist one another with petitions to the federal government. Hurricane Ida is the latest chapter in a community whose story is bookended by forced displacement.
Diane Bourg, 64, a member of Chief Shirell’s tribe, was born and raised in the bayous. Gentle and soft-spoken, she recalls how, like many other Indigenous families in Dulac, her father made a living by fishing, shrimping, trapping, and “catching coons”, or racoons.
She and her husband rode out Ida at home and made it through safely by putting mattresses against the doors which kept the wind out. “Once the wind gets in, [the house] blows apart.”
Since Ida, she spends her days volunteering by distributing donations to her neighbours.
Bourg greets many of the people she grew up with as they come through Anchor Foursquare Church in Dulac. The hallways are lined with supplies: fuel, generators and flashlights for those without power; trash bags and gloves; plywood, chainsaws and drills for those rebuilding; bleach and vinegar to kill the mildew growing on rain-soaked belongings and walls; and tarps to cover damaged roofs.
The community has learned to hold one another up in the absence of a meaningful social safety net.
“It’s not their first rodeo,” Chief Shirell says. “They knew it would mostly be from the community. But they still expected help from insurance companies or FEMA or the Small Business Association [SBA].”
Many of the supplies were donated and transported to the bayous by volunteer organisations. Residents have also independently raised money for supplies.
Danielle Morris is helping even though her own home was destroyed. She is relentlessly optimistic, despite constant work and her own wrecked home. “We’ve been spending a lot of time here handing out food. What am I going to do, sit at home and cry?”
While she and her family weathered the storm out of town, Ida picked up their trailer, “moved it over three feet and dropped it”.
Her recovery is complicated by a cruel trick of timing: after using the same insurance company for 17 years without ever making a claim, when they went to renew in June they were told mobile homes were no longer covered. “So, I have no insurance,” she says.
Morris’ family slept in cars before bouncing around among relatives. “My little one, he’s three. He just walks around saying, ‘Mom, is our house fixed yet? Our house is broken.’”
Housing has become a serious problem in the area. Residents need to stay nearby to rebuild and repair, but without temporary housing, many are sleeping in vehicles, tents, and boats.
At least 10,000 Terrebonne Parish residents requested FEMA trailers, but by late November a mere six habitable trailers had been provided, according to Earl Eues, director of the Terrebonne Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
With weather growing cold, some displaced residents have resorted to living in camps they have set up in the woods.
During past disasters in the area, displaced people could apply to FEMA for a voucher to stay in a nearby hotel at no cost.
But Ida damaged many hotels in Terrebonne Parish, says Chris Pulaski, director of Planning and Zoning for Terrebonne Parish.
Remaining rooms were then occupied by the hundreds of workers who came to repair the devastated electric grid. “We’re navigating a lot of uncharted territory right now. I don’t know if the whole notion of mass disruption, destruction, and damage on this particular scale was ever really…did [the state] plan for it? I don’t know,” Pulaski says.
Hotel vouchers are typically used as holdovers until FEMA delivers trailers, which can act as more long-term housing. Part of the delivery delay is, ironically, due to FEMA policy that forbids trailer installation in places that are below flood elevation, which all of Terrebonne Parish is, says Dirk Guidry, a Terrebonne Parish councilman.
FEMA has now made an exemption to this rule, says Guidry, yet locals say they are still being told by FEMA representatives that they can’t install trailers due to flood elevation issues.
‘You feel forgotten’
“We really did get let down by the federal government,” says Guidry.
He owns Pizza Express, the only operating restaurant open in Chauvin, making it a de facto social centre. People come through for a hot meal, a beer, and news from Guidry.
“We down the bayou, baby. People don’t trust the government. Even me.” Guidry, genial and blue-eyed, is not Indigenous but French-speaking Cajun, and has the Cajun tendency to address his listeners as “baby”.
“You feel forgotten,” says Guidry. “It’s part of the United States down here. But you feel forgotten.”
Even when FEMA and other agencies do provide support, it isn’t enough, he says.
FEMA will only give families seeking to rebuild a maximum of $40,000. But “there’s no way you can build a house, or repair your house, for $40,000. If you start building a home down here, you got base flood elevation you have to do. So you got to build your house 12-foot in the air, and you’re talking about an extra $80-90,000 just to do that. And then you got to build the home.”
Guidry himself had “92 pans” around his house after the storm, catching rain that came through his damaged roof, and went for weeks without plumbing. He says he bathed in his swimming pool until the water turned black, then turned to bottled water.
As he sits inside Pizza Express, residents stop by, asking for updates on the FEMA trailers.
While FEMA trailers are lacking, Guidry says about 400 campers have been delivered to Terrebonne Parish by the state of Louisiana, the first time Louisiana has ever rolled out trailers separately from FEMA. But only about half of those have actually been hooked up to power or water by the contractor responsible, says Guidry.
Land loss, rising water
Hurricane Ida won’t be the last Category 4 hurricane to tear through the Louisiana coast.
Climate change is causing more frequent and more severe storms. Parts of the Gulf are more than 2 degrees Celsius (36 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than they averaged a century ago.
The kind of rapid intensification seen in Hurricane Ida, which whipped up from a Category 2 to nearly a Category 5 storm overnight, averaged once per century; by 2100, that level of ferocity may occur every 5 to 10 years.
At the same time, the Louisiana coast is seeing the highest rate of sea-level rise in the world. The rate of loss is astonishing: a football field worth of land vanishes from the Louisiana coast every 48 minutes.
Land loss from climate change is drastically exacerbated by oil and gas companies, who have slashed thousands of kilometres of canals into the wetlands to allow drilling rigs and pipelines through the marsh.
These canals allow saltwater to encroach into the marsh, killing the plants and trees whose roots hold the soil together. The marshes, which normally act as natural storm barriers, die off, and the soil is washed away. Meanwhile, levees built to protect riverside communities prevent the buildup of alluvial sediment that would normally replace subsiding land. Thus, as the seas rise, the land is sinking.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists say that at the rate of change, most of southeast Louisiana – where the three tribes are – will be underwater by the end of the century. In 2014, NOAA permanently removed 35 place names from their charts after cartographers discovered that they “no longer existed”.
This means that bayou communities not only need to recover from the storm; they also need to plan for the land loss that has already swallowed miles upon miles of Indigenous ancestral land, and will eventually, in all likelihood, force them from their homelands as well.
Chief Shirell has watched land disappear before her eyes. She expects her tribal land will be gone within 50 years.
“It’s obvious. Especially if you go down Shrimpers Row,” she says, referring to a stretch of road in Dulac where mostly Indigenous families live. “You can see the dead trees, hundreds of feet of dead trees. That’s from saltwater intrusion.”
Shrimpers Row is where the majority of Chief Shirell’s family live. It is also where Prevost Cemetery is, where her father, grandparents, and brother are buried.
Even the cemetery is at risk of being lost to the rising water, and one of the efforts she has spearheaded involves using ground-penetrating radar to see where ancestors are interred to more exactly mark the cemetery boundaries. “If the water should come up, even if you’re passing over it in a boat, the GPS will let you know where you’re at – over Prevost Cemetery,” she says.
Fighting for federal recognition
All these obstacles – severe storms, sinking ground, rising seas – are compounded by another ongoing struggle. While the state of Louisiana recognises the tribe, they have been fighting since 1995 for federal recognition.
State recognition qualifies the tribe for some projects, but federal recognition would allow them to have a government-to-government relationship with the US and give the community greater control over their own affairs.
It would enable them to access funds including for storm mitigation through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which they currently don’t receive, launch emergency plans more easily and create economic development opportunities. They would also qualify for various benefits and protections, as well as a range of housing, medical, and social services.
“We’d be able to help people based on how they live,” says Chief Shirell. Instead, they face “a lack of funding and resources that we don’t qualify for due to discrimination”.
She is referring also to the effects of hundreds of years of systemic racism and exclusion which affects education, living conditions and employment rates today.
The 26-year battle for federal recognition has been arduous. “We were told that we needed ‘a concise written narrative,’ which is insane. It’s not enough to give them all the evidence for the criteria – now they need a bedtime story?” asks Chief Shirell.
This document, submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is more than 400 pages long. It necessitated every member of the tribe trace back their genealogies using birth certificates, marriage and baptismal records, and even Supreme Court cases about property, wherein their own enslaved people were the ‘property’ in question.
“In the land records, we were able to trace it back to the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek,” says Chief Shirell, referring to one of the largest land transfers ever signed between the US government and Indigenous peoples, wherein the Choctaw ceded 45,000 square kilometres (17,000 square miles) of their homelands to the US. One of the signees is Taca Labaye – Chief Shirell’s ancestor. Still, they have not received recognition.
Displaced again and again
Chief Albert Naquin, leader of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe, can also trace his lineage back generations. His own great-grandfather, also a chief, was wary of calling himself one as he was “running from Andrew Jackson’s soldiers”.
Jackson was the 7th US President, and a notorious leader of brutal campaigns against Indigenous people. In 1830, he signed the Indian Removal Act, which led the US government to displace tens of thousands of Indigenous people in a series of expulsions now known as “The Trail of Tears”.
“When we walked the Trail of Tears,” Chief Albert says, “some of our ancestors didn’t want to go [west] to Oklahoma.” So they fled south, and settled in Isle de Jean Charles.
The island, about 32km (20 miles) southeast of Chauvin, is almost entirely lost now.
Since 1955, the island has lost 98 percent of its land and is now just a sliver, about a kilometre wide and 3km (1.86 miles) long, connected to the mainland by a single precarious road.
In 2016, the people of Isle de Jean Charles became the first federally funded climate refugees in the continental US after a proposal developed by the community secured funds through HUD’s National Disaster Resilience Competition for the tribe to resettle in a community dubbed “New Isle”, a former sugarcane field north of Houma.
The original plans submitted to HUD outlined a resilient settlement with green infrastructure and a zero-carbon footprint and was worked on by architects from around the country. Both chiefs say the plans were hijacked by the state’s Office of Community Development (OCD).
“We would have had limestone for driveways, so grass would grow, and when rain comes, there wouldn’t be flooding. The plans had wells, windmills, solar panels on every home,” says Chief Albert.
The plans included heat pumps to utilise geothermal heat, gray water systems for leftover water used to wash clothes or bathe, wind turbines, traditional ways of building to allow cooling airflow and reduce dependence on electricity and natural landscaping to reduce flooding. For example, a single mature cypress tree, native to the area, will draw up 3,300 litres of water per day.
But those who worked on the plans claim they were rewritten with none of the environmental and resiliency features that the tribe and experts had spent nearly six years compiling.
Once the funds were secured, the state retooled the plans and did “whatever the hell they wanted”, says Chief Albert.
“We treated it like any other subdivision,” says Pulaski, who suggested the resiliency features weren’t included partly because they were not in line with standard subdivision regulations. As the federal HUD funds were awarded directly to the state, only the government, not the tribe, has final say over the development.
Signed away properties
Other aspects of the new plan effectively displace the tribe and sever ties with their land. Residents who accept resettlement are not allowed to make “substantial” repairs – anything costing above $2,500 – to their traditional homes. In essence, this means those who want to resettle to safer ground must forfeit their traditional land as their old homes crumble year after year. Chief Albert says there is “no reason” for this cruel stipulation.
Meanwhile, five years after the proposal, not one new house has been constructed.
That delay has done real damage to the tribe’s social cohesion. Residents who agreed to move were offered temporary housing for two years. “It’s probably [been] four and a half years now,” mourns Chief Albert. “People have been scattered. I don’t know where to find them.” Some have been rehoused at a great distance, or in places where they feel unsafe.
In some ways, it is a grim, familiar story of displacement.
Sitting on his porch swing the day after his 75th birthday, Chief Albert notes that he was recently reading the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek.
The US Army and white settlers had already decimated the Indigenous peoples, and the Choctaw signed and ceded land under threat of war.
The treaty pledged that “the United States agree to remove the Indians to their new homes…under the care of discreet and careful persons, who will be kind and brotherly to them.”
During their expulsion, up to 6,000 Indigenous people died on what a Choctaw chief called “a trail of tears and death”, partially because provisions promised by the government in the treaty were inadequate or non-existent. The 5,000 Choctaw who remained in Mississippi received almost none of the promised land allotments, instead reporting, “we have had our habitations torn down and burned.”
Chief Albert fears that some Indigenous residents signed resettlement agreements without understanding what they were signing.
At the same time, the state is clearly open to certain types of development on Isle de Jean Charles. Just last year, it built five fishing piers, a boat launch, and parking areas on the 4km (2.5-mile) road that connects the island to the mainland.
“I think they want to get the Indians out and put a fishing resort there,” he says. “I sat over here many a time, depressed, saying I need to do something, but what to do. What to do.”
Rebuilding better, resettling on their own
Last year, along with four other Indigenous groups including Isle de Jean Charles, Chief Shirell’s tribe filed a complaint with the UN alleging that the US is violating their human rights for not acting on the harm climate change is inflicting to their communities.
In light of the hijacked Isle de Jean Charles resettlement plans and the failure by federal and state organisations to adequately support these communities in the wake of Ida, Chief Shirell has decided that, if and when the time comes to relocate, they will do so independent of state assistance, drawing partly on the Isle’s model of a green, sustainable settlement.
The task is daunting. Yet Chief Shirell is confident that it is not only possible, but necessary. “We’re going to make sure we’re the ones who are able to lead for the sake of our people.”
For now, there is the task of rebuilding.
“We know we’re going to be in storms that are more frequent and more intense,” Chief Shirell says. “We’re using traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom from our own people, so we can rebuild better.”
Chief Shirell’s tribe and nearby Indigenous communities are working with community-level organisations for safe, environmentally sound and resilient rebuilding.
The communities are drawing upon hurricane-resistant approaches, such as using screws instead of nails to secure roofs, boards and floors, and looking to Indigenous ingenuity to develop floating, vertical, or hanging gardens, which can be raised with pulleys and secured underneath people’s elevated houses, where they’d be protected from tidal surges.
The idea of hanging gardens came from an Indigenous elder in Grand Bayou, according to Kristina Peterson of the Lowlander Center, an organisation working with the communities. Historically, when the Parish was wooded, people would pull things up into a tree for safe-keeping, she says.
The communities have also learnt how to build and wire a turbine by hand to generate their own electricity for homes and found a tower flexible enough to withstand hurricanes. The turbine will likely go up this winter.
This development, too, drew on an elder’s wisdom about how tribal communities traditionally built with soft rather than hard materials so buildings would “breathe with the surrounding winds”, Peterson says. “[Tribal communities] knew their environment was not something to be conquered, but to live with.”
Chief Shirell’s tribe is developing a community centre that can also serve as an evacuation and post-hurricane housing shelter and is working with wind engineers to ensure it can withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
They plan to build a septic system that would float, making it safe from floods, and will work with the Lowlander Center to begin backfilling the oil and gas canals to try and offset land loss.
“Our whole focus is resiliency, adaptation, and sustainability. Since time immemorial, that’s the way we function,” says Chief Shirell.
But before they can start the work in earnest, they will need to assess the extent of the damage done by the storm.
In the coming months, many will be forced to leave – the cost of rebuilding will be too great for some, and for others, increasingly precarious land and severe weather has become too difficult to withstand.
Of the parish’s 110,000 people, some 5,000 will move away, Guidry believes. “They’re moving with nothing,” he says.
“We’re losing our neighbours,” Chief Shirell notes, her voice softening as she looks out through the doorway of the Chauvin distribution centre where the sky is reddening over Bayou Petit Caillou.
The storm has been traumatising for almost everyone in the community – including her.
“I still haven’t grieved yet. I’ll do that eventually. Now, I can’t. I don’t have time for that. Every day, I’m thankful to our beloved Creator for strength. You just kind of tuck your pain away for a while and focus on what you need to do.”