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Tristan Baurick
The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, Louisiana — When she was a girl, Theresa “Betty” Billiot would open the back door to a view of cattle grazing in pastures, cotton fields and wild prairie dotted with duck ponds. Now she opens the same door and sees nothing but the rising sea.

“You got to watch where you walk because you might sink,” she said, stabbing a soggy backyard path with her shovel, a tool she uses to both ward off snakes and test the stability of the ever-softening, ever-shrinking land around her home, one of the last still standing on Isle de Jean Charles.

“If you get stuck, there’s nobody around anymore to come get you out.”

On a February afternoon in 2021, Billiot, 63, was visiting the “itty-bitty trees” she kept planting on an island everyone tells her is doomed. After years of growth, her two dozen oaks and pecans remained more sticks than trees, stunted by floods, storms and salt water seeping in from underground. Spanish moss hung from one oak’s stubby branches, resembling a child wearing grown-up clothes.

“Only that tree has hope for the future,” she said.

Billiot, a widowed grocery worker and citizen of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, is one of very few islanders who left and then moved back to this remote ribbon of marshy ground in Terrebonne Parish, 45 miles southwest of New Orleans.

After 30 years away, Billiot found the island almost unrecognizable. When Native Americans settled in the early 1800s, Isle de Jean Charles was less an island and more a ridge surrounded by marsh and coastal prairie. By 1957, when Billiot was born, the island covered 35 square miles.

Now, less than 1 square mile remains. It’s as if Manhattan had been whittled down to half of Central Park over a lifetime. The island’s population, mostly French-speaking Native people and their descendants, has fallen from 325 to just a dozen in 20 years.

Billiot returned to her family home in 2013 to care for her elderly mother, a stoic woman dogged by health problems, including a long-festering wound from a gash she got struggling through dank floodwaters.

High tides or south winds frequently swamped the only road out, making it difficult for Billiot to get to work and her mother to get medical care. Storms tugged at the roof and floods lapped at the floorboards. Living on the front lines of hurricanes, coastal erosion and rising seas — factors that rob Louisiana of a football field’s worth of land every 100 minutes — was hard every single day.

In January 2016, a lifeline materialized. A 14-year effort by Billiot’s tribe to resettle citizens on higher, safer ground had netted a $48 million grant. Tiny Isle de Jean Charles would be the focus of the first federally funded relocation of a community threatened by climate change.

It would serve as a prototype for handling what the United Nations expects will be the displacement of up to 200 million people over the next 30 years by a rapidly warming planet.

“This is not just an issue in distant, poor countries,” said Elizabeth Ferris, a climate migration researcher at Georgetown University. “It’s happening in the U.S. right now.” She noted relocation efforts in Alaska, New Hampshire, Washington, New Jersey. “They’re all struggling to get this right.”

But many experts thought the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement wouldn’t be a struggle because it had one big thing the other plans lacked: “A lot of money,” Ferris said. Most efforts are ad hoc affairs with little financial backing. “People were impressed with Louisiana and really wanted to see what they’d do.”

(Related: Climate Change: Homelands in peril)

In a few years, Billiot told her mother, the grant would allow them to move to a brand-new house 40 miles inland. Life would be different, but they’d be surrounded by family and a tribe that had dispersed as the island shrank. Maybe the powwows would return. Maybe they’d see children playing outside again.

But it didn’t happen that way. Because the tribe lacks federal recognition and couldn’t apply for the grant on its own, its leaders partnered with the state — a move they now regret.

Once the state Office of Community Development had the money, the relationship changed. The agency abandoned the tribe’s vision and restarted an already lengthy development process, hiring its own planners and architects, and cutting the tribe’s chief and council out of decision-making.

The state both narrowed resettlement eligibility, instituting financial and residency requirements, and broadened it, with plans to eventually open the resettlement site to people from other parts of the coast.

The agency gave conflicting reasons for the changes or failed to communicate key decisions to tribal leaders — moves that deepened distrust rooted in centuries of bad-faith negotiations with government, broken treaties, stolen land.

And although the state deemed the island unsafe and forbid participants from living on or improving their properties, it spent millions fortifying the access road and adding parking, docks and recreational fishing amenities. That has spurred interest from developers, who envision new cabins for hunters and anglers alongside the wrecked homes of longtime residents.

Internal documents and hundreds of emails obtained by The Times-Picayune | The Advocate show state officials were dismissive of tribal concerns, even as they used the tribe’s plight to drum up money. Once the federal grant was awarded, state officials altered the project’s story, eventually minimizing and sometimes removing mention of the tribe’s role.

Making matters worse, said Jean Charles Choctaw Nation Chief Albert Naquin, is that the resettlement site, known as The New Isle, is still mostly empty lots. More than six years after the grant was awarded, only 12 homes at the 515-acre site near Houma are complete. While the state planned to celebrate the first move-ins this month with tours and a speech from the governor, Naquin was seething.

“We were supposed to be a model for others, but the state took it over and screwed it all up,” he said. “This isn’t our dream come true. Where are the people of Isle de Jean Charles? Not at that place they took from us.”

Some island residents have their boxes packed and look forward to the move, but many more have given up and found other places to live.

The few who remain on the island have seen their homes ripped apart by Hurricane Ida, lived in tents and trailers for months, and are now bracing for more storms.

At least eight tribal citizens have died since the grant was awarded. That includes Billiot’s mother, who died two years ago at 96.

During Billiot’s walk among her trees, she stopped at a resilient grapefruit tree planted when she was a child. It produced a bounty that Billiot’s mother shared with neighbors. Now, with everyone moving, the fruit falls to the ground and rots.

“He made it through plenty of storms,” she said of the tree. “He might make it through some more.”

Billiot’s not sure she’ll do the same.

“Every time a storm comes, it takes out more land,” she said. “One day it might take me out, too.”

A refuge before the storms

Danger of another kind brought Billiot’s ancestors here almost 200 years ago.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which empowered the government to force Native people to move west of the Mississippi River, eventually confining them to “Indian territory,” in what’s now Oklahoma.

The Choctaw tribe of Mississippi was the first expelled, forced to travel by foot with little food and few supplies. At least 10,000 Natives died along the way. A Choctaw chief called it “a trail of tears,” a name that stuck.

Some Choctaw fled to the wilderness of swamps in south Terrebonne. There, they found other refugees: Biloxi, Houma and Chitimacha Indians.

“They had all come there to hide from the White folks trying to kill them,” Naquin said.

The island community traces its beginnings to a forbidden marriage. When Naquin’s great-great-grandfather, a Frenchman named Jean Marie Naquin, wed an Indian woman, Pauline Verdin, his family cast him out. The couple settled on the marsh-girded island and Jean Marie named it after the father who disowned him. Verdin bore several children, who in turn married Indians from nearby communities.

The island was secluded and difficult to reach, making it an ideal hideout for the pirate Jean Lafitte — or so goes island lore, which also holds that his treasure, buried somewhere on the island, sinks deeper every time you speak of it.

The island was officially “uninhabited swamp” well into the late 1800s. By the 1910 census, the island had 16 families and 77 people. All the men were listed as trappers, fishermen and oystermen.

“Reading, writing and the English language are invading L’Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana’s Pitcairn Island,” declared the New Orleans Item in an early account of the island, from 1939. It describes palmetto huts, bark and herb “potions,” a chief named Uncle Victor, and “children that are the happiest in the world.” The article focuses on a Works Progress Administration employee trying to teach English to the 151 inhabitants, who spoke a unique dialect of Cajun French.

It mentions Naquins, Billiots, Dardars and Chaissons — names still adorning mailboxes along the island’s one road.

Like a microcosm of Louisiana, the island had mostly Catholics on the south side and Baptists on the north. They came together at the store, which had space for school lessons and church services alongside a bar, dance floor and a room to tuck the children away while the parents waltzed to old Cajun tunes.

Tribal citizens weren’t welcome in nearby dance halls, stores or schools.

“They didn’t want us dancing with White girls or sitting next to their White kids at school,” Albert Naquin said.

After integration in the 1960s, the Indians' language was forbidden. Billiot remembers spending hours with her nose pressed against a chalkboard for speaking French. Naquin received harsher punishments. “Look at these hands,” he said, holding up gnarled fingers. “They’d hit these with a stick every time I spoke French.”

The island again drew outside interest when oil companies began slicing canals through the surrounding marsh. In 1952, the first oil derrick rose above the island, a sign some residents hoped would signal prosperity. But tribal members recall companies used intimidation and coercion to get land access and oil rights from residents who couldn’t speak or read enough English to understand what they were signing away.

That was when residents noticed the island starting to unravel.

“They put in these canals and they cut the island in two or three, and that brought in the salt water,” said Edison Dardar, a tribal council member and retired oyster harvester. “That messed up the whole thing.”

The canals allowed the sea to penetrate inland wetlands, killing trees and grasses that held the soil in place. Storm surges blasted through this network of watery highways, causing rapid erosion and flooding miles from the coast.

Such canals are now considered a primary cause of Louisiana’s land-loss crisis, along with rising seas, storms and the levees that straitjacket the Mississippi’s land-restoring sediment.

Oil extraction also accelerated subsidence, the speed at which Louisiana’s land compacts, by a factor of two or three. While seas are rising, the land around oil wells is sinking faster.

Dardar, 73, has watched the sea steadily encroach.

“You could catch muskrat and hunt duck in the ponds out there,” he said. “You could walk all the way to Pointe-aux-Chenes,” about 3 miles away.

The Terrebonne Basin had lost a quarter of its land before the government finally decided to take serious action in the early 1990s. That’s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began planning the 100-mile Morganza-to-the-Gulf hurricane levee, which rivals the New Orleans protection system.

But Isle de Jean Charles was left outside the new wall. Moreover, Corps planners predicted the new levee system would make things worse for the island, raising water levels by 3 to 7 feet during storms.

By 2002, the tribe knew it had to leave. Naquin began talking to the Corps about a relocation plan that morphed into a $10 million buyout. The catch: The plan required 100 percent buy-in from the community. Princeton University researcher Nathan Jessee, who has studied the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement effort for years, called it “a naïve deal,” bound to fail.

The Corps’ team lacked social scientists and “could not have appreciated the unrealistic nature of the demand,” Jessee said.

Instead, the local levee district built a 6-foot-tall “ring” levee around the island. It was high enough to keep out tides but not to protect against minor hurricanes. The levee also sealed off the island’s bayou. Once crowded with fishing boats and teeming with crabs and fish, it stagnated into a weedy ditch.

A tribal plan ‘on the cutting edge’

The tribe, then known as the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, decided to pursue its own resettlement. The plan would do more than make people safer — it would reunite a tribe that had seen members trickle off the island for decades.

Many, like Naquin, hadn’t gone far. He moved to Pointe-aux-Chenes after Hurricane Carmen flooded his house in 1974; others settled in Montegut, Bayou Blue, Golden Meadow and Houma. Some left the state. By 2022, the tribe had almost 700 members, but only about a dozen were still living on their namesake island.

Naquin hoped a new site would have space for the island community to remain intact while allowing others to return to the fold.

An initial proposal to move people to Bourg, a small, mostly White community 13 miles north of the island, was abandoned after Terrebonne Parish officials raised concerns that it would decrease property values.

In 2009, the tribe teamed up with the Lowlander Center, a Terrebonne nonprofit that helps coastal communities adapt to environmental changes, and began crafting a more detailed proposal.

Nearly 190 professionals “from pavement experts to hydrologists” helped, often working pro bono, said Kristina Peterson, a Lowlander founder and former University of New Orleans environmental hazards researcher.

“We took all the values of the tribe and put them into a place,” she said. “It was exceedingly cutting-edge.”

The 120-home plan emphasized a tribal center with space for a children’s day care, meals for the elderly and tribal gatherings. Its initial purpose, though, would be as a storm shelter.

“We wanted that center built first so if we have a hurricane, we’d have a place to evacuate,” Naquin said. “How many hurricanes have we had since then? I lost count.”

On the same property the state later selected for the resettlement, there’d be a health clinic, museum, classrooms, a garden for growing traditional herbs and medicines, powwow grounds, a sports fields and a trail with fitness stations.

A large share of the land would be converted to water by broadening a bayou and adding new channels for rice and crawfish cultivation. Along La. 24, the tribe hoped to build commercial buildings that could offer jobs and training.

“We had a big map on an easel, and everybody picked their own spot for their house,” Naquin said. “Everybody had a pin and put it where they wanted to live. We were proud of it.”

Tribal members would help construct the houses and receive training in sustainable building. The houses would be outfitted with solar panels, while gardens and outdoor recreation areas would absorb stormwater.

The tribe was, in essence, creating what the federal government had long denied it: a reservation. The site would have functioned as many reservations do, managed by tribal leaders and offering services, amenities and economic opportunities.

“Some said it was too aspirational, but we wanted this community to live out into a future we know will need to embrace all these ideas,” Peterson said.

The plan was showcased at conferences and won awards, but funding was elusive — until President Barack Obama’s administration announced a plan to dole out $1 billion to imperiled communities with innovative rebuilding proposals.

States and local governments qualified for the contest. But the Isle de Jean Charles tribe, which lacks federal recognition, did not. Fortunately, it seemed then, the state offered a helping hand. Naquin now wishes he’d slapped it away.

‘Stabbed in the back’

The state Office of Community Development initially embraced the plan’s tribal focus, viewing it as a selling point.

“All factors of design and process will help to support and enhance tribal identity, sovereignty, and dignity,” agency staffers wrote in 2015 to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which was overseeing the contest.

When HUD awarded a $48 million grant, Office of Community Development Director Pat Forbes sent a congratulatory letter to Naquin thanking the tribe for its “partnership and hard work.” The office’s relationship with the tribe, Forbes wrote, “demonstrated to HUD Louisiana’s ability to work as a team.”

But the team soon began to fall apart.

Agency leaders bristled over press coverage indicating the grant was for the tribe.

“This is garbage,” Mathew Sanders, the project’s manager, groused in an email highlighting a quote in which Naquin said the tribe wouldn’t survive unless the state acted quickly.

Forbes noted another article that “asks if we actually had anything to do” with the grant. “Somebody’s really twisting this thing about who the grantee is,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, tensions rose between the Lowlander Center and contractors the state hired to redo much of the work.

“The state took the plan and excluded Lowlander and the tribe,” Peterson said. “They basically tossed it out. They took almost 20 years of work and said, ‘This (project) is ours and we’ll do what we want with it.’ ”

State leaders began to suspect strong involvement by the tribe could set the stage for a future Indian reservation, an outcome they seemed to fear.

“My hypothesis is that the site in question for the new community may be on the radar by the tribe to be held in trust someday by the state or federal government for such a time when federal recognition is granted,” Louisiana Director of Indian Affairs Chaunda Allen wrote in a 2017 email.

In an interview this month, Forbes stressed that his office would have no issue with recognition. But the topic is often contentious: States have been reluctant to relinquish jurisdiction or take on the added complexity of a new sovereign nation within their borders. In Louisiana, energy companies have opposed recognition over concerns that tribes would assert claims on oil-rich lands.

The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation is one of about a dozen tribes recognized by Louisiana but not the federal government. While state recognition confers few advantages, the federal stamp comes with everything from grants and disaster assistance to self-governance and special protections.

Of more than 570 federally recognized tribes, only four — the Chitimacha, Coushatta, Tunica-Biloxi, and Jena Band of Choctaws — are in Louisiana.

The process relies mostly on written documents, which is a challenge for the Jean Charles tribe, partly because the tribe settled in a remote area to avoid detection by White authorities.

Crafting a successful submission often requires heavy spending on legal advice and archival research, which can detract from other tribal efforts and overwhelm leaders, Jessee said.

Sanders stressed the tribe’s lack of federal recognition when coaching the Office of Community Development's communications manager on responses to journalists.

“The only entity with any jurisdiction of the project is the state of Louisiana,” Sanders wrote in an email, noting that the weaker state recognition gives the tribe no legal standing “over any element” of the grant. “This has always been the case and will always be the case.”

The agency began organizing meetings without the tribe’s involvement. A state-sponsored survey of island residents indicated that not everyone supported Naquin or considered themselves a member of his tribe. A few said they were members of the United Houma Nation — a larger tribe, also lacking federal recognition, that considered the Jean Charles tribe a splinter group.

“One of the big outcomes was practically nobody on the island said, ‘Hey, the tribe speaks for me,’ ” Forbes said this month. “Naturally, from that point, (we) gravitated to working with residents, which really is more realistic than working with a tribe.”

Instead of using the Jean Charles tribal council as a sounding board, the agency handpicked a steering committee that included nontribal island residents and state planners.

“That’s when I knew that we got stabbed in the back by the state,” Naquin said.

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Sportsman’s island

Naquin accused the state of “divide-and-conquer tactics” that mirrored those used by oil companies: Ignore tribal leaders and focus on individuals to “get them to sign their land away.”

The state was putting tight restrictions on residents who signed on to the resettlement. Agreements prevented residents from ever living on, renting or improving their island properties once they moved to New Isle.

While the agency was ensuring the island would be vacated, other state agencies were making sure off-islanders would have access. The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries used a $3 million grant to shore up the oft-flooded Island Road and add recreational amenities, including a boat launch and fishing piers.

Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet called it a “state-of-the-art location” where anglers could “fish, mingle and take advantage of the bounty in our Sportsman’s Paradise.”

Developers were interested. Last year, Houma-based A.M. Dupont Corp. proposed a subdivision of fishing cabins, offering to pay for sewer pipes and fire hydrants.

"This is profoundly unsettling,” Naquin told Terrebonne officials. “Our tribe was strongly encouraged to leave our homes, and we were told that if we stayed, we’d have no help or services there. Now, we’re finding out that the land is being repurposed and seemingly redeveloped for private recreational use.”

The plan was withdrawn after the tribe protested, but interest in the island persists. Residents regularly get offers from developers looking to buy properties and turn them into rentals.

Billiot and her family had been approached so many times they posted a sign that read, “Family Home, Not For Sale.”

‘Not a tribal resettlement at all’

By mid-2017, agency staff began quietly saying what was becoming obvious: They no longer saw the project as a tribal resettlement.

“I’m generally tired of this nonsense,” Sanders wrote to Forbes after Naquin asked to be present when the agency visited tribal members. “It’s not a ‘tribal’ resettlement. This mayor from afar charade is hurting the project.”

In an email to tribal citizens, he wrote that he could not “use these federal grant dollars with the explicit purpose of benefiting your tribe.”

Doing so, Sanders said, would be discriminatory. Though the state pitched the project as supportive of tribal “sovereignty and dignity,” agency leaders eventually decided the project had to narrow its focus on whether or not an applicant had been an island resident. They took the position that limiting the project to a specific tribe or Native Americans generally might violate HUD rules and federal anti-discrimination laws.

But why, then, did HUD award a grant to a project whose overt purpose was to relocate a tribe? HUD billed the project as a “relocation of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe” to a “resilient and historically contextual community.”

HUD did not respond to a request for comment.

The state also cited an objection by the Houma Nation for shifting the focus away from the Jean Charles tribe. Shortly after the grant was awarded, the Houma chief wrote a letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards claiming several members on the island and expressing frustration at having not been “brought to the table.”

In public, the Office of Community Development said that letter caused a dramatic change of direction. But privately, state leaders said the Houma tribe’s concerns played no role in their decision-making.

“We would have done this regardless of the United Houma Nation’s letter,” Sanders said in an email. “Even going back to the time in which we were putting together the application, we were always clear that our primary emphasis was on the island and the people who lived there.”

If the plan had always been about moving a vulnerable community, why Isle de Jean Charles? Other parts of the coast are at similar risk. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan identifies the island and 10 other locations where “daily life will be next to impossible” in less than 50 years.

The other communities lacked the distinction of a unique Native American community and a well-developed relocation plan. Jessee said the state essentially “operationalized” the tribe in seeking the grant, but then abandoned the tribe for an “island community” focus once the grant was awarded.

“Is the model they were proposing ‘Hey, let’s move some people from one area to the suburbs?’ ” he said. “No. They were asking (HUD) to invest in a tribal community — and it worked.”

With the tribe marginalized, the state felt free to expand the use of the new site. At a meeting in late 2017, Sanders mentioned that the community would be opened up to other Louisiana residents imperiled by rising seas, possibly bringing the final population to around 300. The change shocked the tribe, which went public with its concerns, saying the state “steadily erased” its role.

The state deepened the erasure by removing mention of the tribe in official descriptions of the project. In an email exchange about the project website, agency staff decided to cut references to past resettlement efforts. “I’d agree, take out that section and simply say something that just indicates we were aware of them,” a policy analyst wrote.

In an essay Sanders wrote for a national publication, he highlighted the “long days spent trekking to and from the island, actively engaging with islanders” and the worldwide attention the project was getting, noting a “stream of interview requests.” The 1,100-word piece never once mentions the tribe or Native Americans.

Tribal members were no longer invited to join agency staff as they presented the project at conferences, including some of the world’s largest gatherings of scientists and civic planners.

Forbes said it was “unlikely” his staff purposefully cut the tribe’s role out of the project’s narrative.

"It’s not like we had some moment where we said, 'We’re going to pretend the tribe was never part of this,'"he said this month.

By late 2018, the tribe’s frustration had reached a boil. Just as the state finalized the purchase of the property, Naquin asked HUD to take the grant back.

“This is dishonoring of everything our ancestors did to ensure we survived the Indian Removal Act 1830, Indian Relocation Act of 1956, Jim Crow Laws, and other discriminatory acts,” Naquin wrote to HUD.

HUD ignored the request. Sanders scoffed at it.

“I think we always knew they’d have one last push,” Sanders wrote in an email. “Not surprising now is the time, given the property purchase and movement in getting the plan finalized. Feels desperate to me.”

The New Isle

On a spring day in 2021, Billiot drove 40 miles north to Schriever, a farming community that’s fast becoming a suburb between Thibodaux and Houma. At the latest conversion of a cane field to a subdivision, Billiot found a 90-foot-wide lot and a sign with her name on it.

It was difficult to picture her future at New Isle, but she could easily envision what might have been.

“I showed my mama the blueprint, and said, ‘Mama, this is where your bedroom can be, right here on the back porch,’ ” Billiot said. “I told her, 'We can just roll your bed out on the back porch,' and she liked that.”

The porch was supposed to overlook a bayou.

“I’m going to go take a picture of this ditch,” Billiot said while walking to a muddy channel with symmetrical curves that the state agency says will one day replicate the island’s bayou.

The state purchased the 515-acre sugar farm in late 2018 for $11.7 million. Once developed, the site will have about 110 houses, a community center, and commercial and retail space along La. 24. Thirty-seven houses are planned for residents who lived on the island after 2012, and another 25 empty lots could be given to residents who left before 2012. About 50 lots may eventually be offered to other coastal residents.

The state offered a range of reasons for the slow progress: permitting issues and environmental reviews, the COVID-19 pandemic, materials shortages and hurricanes.

There were no houses when Billiot visited in April 2021, but the state had managed to clear the land, install some utilities and the beginnings of a road, and dug pits for ponds.

Forbes said he hoped to create a place where islanders would feel at home.

“Their culture is rooted in the water,” he said as residents toured the site. “But safety, for them, is the most important part.”

On-site drainage would greatly reduce rain flooding at New Isle and neighboring properties, and the homes would be constructed to withstand 150 mph winds, Forbes said, “making them the safest homes in Terrebonne.”

Getting communities with deep ties to the coast to willingly move inland is one of the state’s most urgent challenges, he said.

“Unfortunately, Louisiana has to learn how to do this really fast because we are at the forefront of land loss,” he said. “We have got to keep getting better at this.”

Mixed reviews

Howard Brunet pushed his uncle Chris Brunet in his wheelchair through churned dirt at the site of the house they plan to share. They gave mixed reviews.

“Seeing this, it’s bittersweet,” Chris said. “But it’s something I have to accept.”

Chris raised Howard and his sister, Juliette, on the island. He’d prefer to stay, but he knows the island is unsafe and will leave him little to pass to his family.

Howard, 19, didn’t qualify for a new house because he was a minor when the qualification process happened. The state told him he’s welcome to buy a lot for $50,000.

Howard grew up hunting and fishing on the island. New Isle is nothing like it, he said.

“They told us the house would have a beautiful view of a wetland,” he said. “It’s barren, like the moon.”

Behind the house site, a dirt field blended with grass and short trees. Beyond that, a hulking Chevron maintenance facility, a radio tower and the rooftops of another subdivision.

“They got a fake bayou pinched between two roads,” Howard said. “In somebody’s mind, this is a wetland, but not mine.”

The Rev. Roch Naquin, a longtime priest on the island, saw potential.

“It’s a mighty big place,” he said after visiting his lot. “I can’t wait to see the homes and the people moving in. It’s going to come alive.”

The first homes were supposed to be ready a few months later, but spring came and went. Billiot became nervous as the summer hurricane season loomed. She’d have to make a tough decision: risk her life waiting for her new home or find some other place to live.

Her daughter and two grandkids had recently moved from Texas to Maine. They called their little community on the rocky Atlantic coast a paradise. The grandkids were thriving. Beyond snowy roads, the state was almost boring in how safe and quiet it was, Billiot’s daughter told her.

It sounded idyllic. But she found it hard to imagine life in New England.

“I hear they got lighthouses,” she said. “Will they let you sleep in one? Do they got ghosts in ’em? I hope so.”

Hurricane Ida: ‘This one is the worst’

Albert Naquin had never seen such destruction.

The tribal chief wandered the island, passing homes shredded beyond recognition and foundations standing bare alongside heaps that had been kitchens and bedrooms. Utility poles and power lines blocked the only road. Twisted strips of metal roofing cluttered the island’s bayou. All was still, except a few skittish cats and chickens darting in and out of the wreckage.

Five months after residents toured New Isle, the old isle took a direct hit from Hurricane Ida.

“It’s terrible. Just terrible,” Naquin said when he reached the end of the road. “We get a lot of damage from storms. But this one here — there’s no comparison. This one is the worst.”

More than half of the 15 homes with full-time residents were either destroyed or damaged beyond repair. Everyone evacuated before the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2021, hunkering down with family or friends in nearby communities that also took a licking from the Category 4 storm.

Ian Naquin, 29, was in awe when he found his childhood home a crumpled mess atop tall pilings. A great-nephew of the chief’s, Ian had been planning to fix damage from past storms, “but it looks like Ida took care of it. Took care of everything.”

Chris Brunet’s house partially collapsed. He preferred to focus on the main part, which remained intact.

“My house, it did survive,” he said. “But when you’ve got no power, no water, it’s hard to live like that.”

He and the half-dozen residents who returned would spend weeks or months living in tents and under tarps before upgrading to donated trailers.

The island was now mostly old men who’d fished in their primes but now spent their days puttering around their properties, sometimes casting a net for a shrimp dinner. Brunet still planned to move to New Isle. The rest weren’t budging.

Dominick “Cowan” Dardar’s shack had its “Social Club” sign back up, but it was missing two walls and most of its roof. Still, the retired fisherman had a minifridge and a radio squawking country music.

“This is where we drink every day,” he said, unloading a case of beer. “Just me and my brother. Only need us.”

Though their little houses were swept off their foundations, Dardar said living next to his obliterated home was better than living in a new one off-island.

“This is my place,” he said. “I belong to here.”

Down the road, Billiot’s brothers and nephews tarped her home and assessed the damage. Windows were broken and the kitchen cabinets were warped beyond repair. Family portraits that crowded the walls lay in puddles on the floor. Billiot’s mother’s room, a time capsule of the day she died, with her bed covered in a quilt she sewed, was soaked and splattered with mud.

Billiot’s brother Baudean pointed to the spot in the floor where their father installed a drain hole to flush out mud after flooding. The home was raised a few years ago, clearing it of floodwaters but not 150 mph winds.

Outside, Baudean’s wife, Helen, checked on Billiot’s beloved trees. Most were knocked over or snapped in two.

“Betty’d be heartbroken to see what happened here,” Helen said. “The Lord moved her out of here just in time.”

As the roof had peeled off and her bedroom churned with wind and rain, Billiot was sleeping soundly down the hall from her grandchildren, 1,600 miles from the storm.

‘I’m safe here’

Billiot clucked and fussed after her grandchildren as they frolicked on a rocky viewpoint between waterfalls that tumble through a Maine town 25 miles from the Canadian border. Ivan, 10, and Alex, 5, ran a little too fast and leaned a little too heavily on the railings for Billiot.

“Alex, where you at?” she said to the cherubic boy. “Alex, you stay here next to me.”

The town’s name, Machias, means “bad little falls” in the Passamaquoddy language. Ivan, a ponytailed boy with boundless curiosity, asked what’s so bad about the falls.

“Because if you fall in, it’s bad,” Billiot answered. She stared at the raging whitewater and shook her head, covered against the spring chill. “The bayou don’t roll like that, except maybe when there’s a storm.”

Trips to the falls are about as exciting as it gets for Billiot, who moved to this rural stretch of the Maine coast two months before Ida hit. Her daughter, Margaret, and son-in-law, Chad Sowers, had had enough of hurricanes in Louisiana and urban crime in Texas, where Sowers served in the Army. They wanted a peaceful, affordable place with good schools.

For Billiot, Maine was an alien environment of jagged rocks and snow. She marveled at the seemingly endless pine forests that blanketed the hills.

“It’s just Christmas trees everywhere, all the time,” she said.

Her compulsion to plant trees, as she had done on Isle de Jean Charles, quickly faded.

“Maine don’t need any more,” she said. “But maybe I’ll take some in my bag when I go back.”

Billiot still plans to claim her New Isle home and share it with a grandson and his wife and baby. New Isle participants must occupy their homes as their primary residence for five years. Billiot plans to comply, possibly wintering in Louisiana and then humping it back to the Northeast before storm seasons.

It won’t be easy to divide her life between the two coasts. She moved all her things to Maine, including her large collection of quilts and boxes of raw fabric. She set up a sewing spot in the kids’ playroom, and spent the winter quilting, playing with Legos and watching snow fall.

“I’m making my 'naked man' quilt,” she said with a grin, showing a needlepoint cowboy wearing a hat and little else. “All these beautiful men will warm me up when it’s cold.”

She just finished an intricate quilt depicting Native Americans hunting and fishing.

“I want it to hang at the (New Isle) community center — if we ever get one,” she said.

Billiot’s house was finally completed this month — two years after New Isle construction began, more than six years since the grant was awarded, and 20 years since the tribe began planning its resettlement.

Ivan has been working on an alternative. He built a Lego island with wheels that can help it flee hurricanes.

“I’m making my 'naked man' quilt,” she said with a grin, showing a needlepoint cowboy wearing a hat and little else. “All these beautiful men will warm me up when it’s cold.”

She just finished an intricate quilt depicting Native Americans hunting and fishing.

“I want it to hang at the (New Isle) community center — if we ever get one,” she said.

Billiot’s house was finally completed this month — two years after New Isle construction began, more than six years since the grant was awarded, and 20 years since the tribe began planning its resettlement.

Ivan has been working on an alternative. He built a Lego island with wheels that can help it flee hurricanes.

“It could have a metal shield — a dome! — that closes over,” the boy said. “All you’d need to do is press a button.”

Billiot chuckled, impressed by his imagination and touched by his concern.

“But I’m safe here,” she said. “And I might be too old by the time you’ve got that technology. Those other people in Louisiana, they’re going to need that. So you better hurry up.”

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This article first appeared in the The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate.

Tristan Baurick is an environment reporter for The Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate. Email him at tbaurick@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @tristanbaurick