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Rebecca Santana
Associated Press

ALONG BAYOU POINTE-AU-CHIEN, La. — Driving through her village along the southeastern Louisiana bayou, tribal official Cherie Matherne points out remnants of house after house — including her own — wrecked nine months ago when Hurricane Ida roared through the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe community.

Trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and travel campers sit next to pilings that elevated homes 14 feet off the ground to protect them from flooding. But the wind got them this time. For hours, the Category 4 hurricane tore off roofs and siding, ripped out insulation and scattered treasured belongings.

“It’s going to take years before people can get back to their lives. The majority of people are still at a standstill,” said Matherne, the tribe’s cultural heritage and resiliency coordinator.

When Ida barreled through southeast Louisiana on Aug. 29, it slammed into an area home to many tribes, battering people already struggling to overcome decades of coastal erosion and the long shadow of discrimination. With the start of a new hurricane season predicted to be as busy as the last, tribal officials worry their people could be in the crosshairs again.

“Ida was the worst storm we've ever had in our area," said August Creppel, chief of the United Houma Nation. The tribe's roughly 19,000 citizens are spread across coastal Louisiana, about 11,000 of whom experienced some sort of damage from Ida, according to Creppel.

“Some of our people don’t even have a house to go back to," he said.

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Other tribes in southeastern Louisiana also were hammered. Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe citizen Theresa Dardar said only about 12 homes in the lower part of the Pointe-au-Chien community actually survived the storm. Farther west, where many citizens of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw live, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar said everyone had some sort of damage, with about 20 percent of homes a total loss, even her own.

August "Cocoa" Creppel, chief of the United Houma Nation in Louisiana, stands near family graves at a historic cemetery built around Houma burial mounds in the town of Jean Lafitte on the banks of Barataria Bayou. The tribe has a long history in southern Louisiana but the devastation caused by climate change is driving some tribal citizens out of their homelands. (Photo by Dianna Hunt/Indian Country Today)

Native people have lived in the southeastern Louisiana bayou regions since long before French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1682. Historically, they have been intimately tied to the land and water there. Many make their living shrimping or crabbing in the marshes and estuaries; their parents and grandparents trapped muskrats or nutria.

But decades of development have eroded that land from under them. Levees built to prevent the Mississippi River from flooding have starved coastal Louisiana of the fresh sediment it needs to rebuild land; canals dug to facilitate oil and gas development or shipping have allowed saltwater to encroach farther inland.

That means the buffers of land, trees and marsh grass that once protected Native communities from storms in the Gulf have dwindled even as climate change portends a future of stronger, wetter storms.

Lester Naquin's father, a trapper, used to take his son crabbing and shrimping. Naquin remembers when there was so much land that his family raised cattle behind his house in Pointe-au-Chien. Now, he said, if you go past the levee to fish, you'll catch speckled trout, a saltwater species.

The 70-year-old Naquin loves the bayou. That's why he decided to come back even after Ida destroyed the home he used to share with his extended family. With FEMA money and materials and contractors paid for by a charity, he's been one of the few to rebuild in the region.

He's still living in a FEMA-supplied trailer while the house is finished, but it's lonely for a man who used to live with multiple generations. And he's not sure how many of his family will return. The shell of his nephew's home still stands next door. But this is where Naquin grew up, where his memories are.

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“As long as I can stay down here, I will,” he said.

A cemetery in lower Lafitte, Louisiana, is covered with nearly a foot of marsh mud after Hurricane Ida struck the area on Aug. 29, 2021. Several of the caskets washed up and broke open during the storm. (Photo by Dianna Hunt/Indian Country Today)
United Houma Nation citizens fled to this mobile home community in Ashland, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina devasted their homes farther south in Dulac. The latest devastation from Hurricane Ida on Aug. 29, 2021, has left some citizens wondering if they need to leave their ancestral lands to avoid the impact of climate change. (Photo by Dianna Hunt/Indian Country Today)

Decades of discrimination against Native people reverberate today in ways that affect their ability to prepare and recover from hurricanes, tribal officials say.

Discrimination restricted where they could go to school, and when they were allowed to go to school, many faced harassment. Louise Billiot, a tribal official with the United Houma Nation who helps people get job training, said she can see the ripple effects of that lack of education among tribal elders who have difficulty using computers or cellphones to file hurricane claims or track their appeals.

The tribes most affected by Ida did not have federal recognition, although they're in a decadeslong process seeking it. Tribal officials say federal recognition would give them better access to funding for more hurricane-resistant homes and programs to help improve members' lives ahead of storms.

After storms, federal recognition would let them work directly with the federal government, tribal officials say. When the Seminole Tribe of Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the federally recognized tribe requested and received an emergency declaration from then-President Donald Trump to help address their needs.

Parfait-Dardar said the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is looking at ways residents can rebuild homes stronger than before. “We’re an adapting people, always have been,” she said. But she worries that tribal members who cannot afford to rebuild will be forced to move.

Rebuilding also can be an exhausting process, especially for older tribal members.

Pictured: Damage of interior to United Houma Nation’s administration building caused by Hurricane Ida on August 29, 2021.
Pictured: Damage of interior to United Houma Nation’s administration building caused by Hurricane Ida on August 29, 2021.

Irene Verdin, 67, a citizen of the United Houma Nation who lives in the Pointe-au-Chien area, is living in a FEMA trailer next to the remains of her house, where mementos still lie on the floor. Her roof is long gone — somewhere in the marshes behind her house.

She is the main caretaker for her sister-in-law, who has had two strokes. And Verdin's 73-year-old husband, who used to work on boats, had a heart attack this year. Since the storm, her own blood pressure is climbing.

Deciding what to do is almost paralyzing. She'd like to rebuild, but just getting an estimate from a contractor is difficult — let alone finding a way to pay for construction. Verdin said she sometimes feels like those living down the bayou are forgotten.

“It’s still up in the air in my head. It’s still up in the air as to what we’re going to do," she said. "It’s hard."

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