In Southern Louisiana, Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture is helping the people of Isle de Jean Charles move away from a disappearing coast.
By Brian Barth / Photography by Julie Dermansky
Every year LAM honors two articles that stand out in the realm of landscape architecture with the Bradford Williams Medal—one that has appeared in LAM, and one from outside the magazine. After a nomination and selection process by the LAM Editorial Advisory Committee, this year’s 2017 Bradford Williams Medal LAM winner is Brian Barth for his article “Let’s Beat It,” below, which appeared in the October 2016 issue.
Wenceslaus Billiot often spies dolphins leaping in the bay behind his house in Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. Just shy of his 90th birthday, he remembers his backyard as a vast, forested wetland when he raised his family here as a young man. In dry weather, the land was firm enough for his kids to walk to the store in the nearby hamlet of Chauvin. This June day the water is calm—a fisherman’s paradise—but hurricane season is another story. Billiot, a World War II veteran, former tugboat captain, and boat builder, says every year the water comes higher.
He lives in a dwindling community of the Biloxi–Chitimacha–Choctaw tribe, and like most of the 27 families who remain, Billiot and his wife, Denecia, are making plans to move inland. “But I don’t want to go,” he says in a Cajun accent.
He has no choice. Isle de Jean Charles, once 22,000 acres, has lost 98 percent of its land area since 1955, and state officials warn that the remaining land may be gone by midcentury. The only road to the island runs atop a narrow causeway that floods whenever a stiff south wind coincides with high tide, which makes it hard for residents to get to school or work. A deluge of media attention has made Isle de Jean Charles a widely known example of Louisiana’s land loss crisis, and of global warming more generally. It was the subject of the 2013 documentary Can’t Stop the Water and the inspiration for the Bathtub, the mythical community in the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild. But dozens of rural communities here face similar challenges as rising sea levels coupled with environmental degradation in the coastal landscape have left enormous swaths of the Mississippi River Delta wetlands underwater. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that the state is losing about one football field of land each hour.
In the 1830s, members of Billiot’s tribe left their ancestral homelands in Mississippi under the gun of the federal government. They were among the first people sent westward on the Trail of Tears following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, but escaped and found refuge in the sparsely settled bayous of Terrebonne Parish, some 80 miles west of New Orleans. Many of the original tribe members intermarried with French-speaking locals and eventually formed a tight-knit and largely self-sufficient community of 300 to 400 residents on Isle de Jean Charles, which was then a rib of high ground amid the tangle of bald cypress, dwarf palmettos, and sawgrass swamps.
For the current migration, the federal government is trying to help. In January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded $92 million to the state to support the Louisiana Strategic Adaptations for Future Environments program, an initiative to regenerate wetlands, protect coastal development from flooding, and begin the process of relocating the most vulnerable communities along the coast. Of that sum, $48 million is earmarked for relocating the Isle de Jean Charles community.
The grant was one of 13 awarded through the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), essentially a second phase of HUD’s 2014 Rebuild by Design competition. The impending move has earned the tribe members the unwanted distinction of being among America’s first climate refugees.
Mathew Sanders, a planner with the state’s Office of Community Development, which will administer the grant, says: “Isle de Jean Charles is going to be the pioneering group to help us develop what we hope is a resettlement model along our coast and potentially for other coastal environments that are going to need to conduct those types of activities in the future.” They are the guinea pigs.
My journey to Isle de Jean Charles began in the backyard of Barney Lighter, a landscape architect and partner in the firm Evans + Lighter Landscape Architecture, in New Orleans. In early 2015, the firm was brought on by the Lowlander Center, a local nonprofit that has assisted the tribe in its relocation efforts since 2009, to assemble a conceptual plan for a new 500-acre village for the Isle de Jean Charles tribe at a site north of Houma, the parish seat, about 60 miles west of New Orleans. The village is planned to have at least 100 home sites, a tribal center, a medical clinic, commercial space, and sports fields, as well as infrastructure such as a combined heat- and power-generating facility and constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment. It was this vision, developed through more than a dozen community meetings with the tribe, that the Office of Community Development used in support of its NDRC application.
As I make my way past a bower of red-and-white bleeding heart vine and a hanging staghorn fern the size of an armchair, Lighter welcomes me into a walled courtyard garden that is all I imagined the garden of a New Orleans landscape architect would be: citrus and loquat trees; bird-of-paradise; an old fountain planted with a palm tree; everything a bit rusted, decaying, and disordered, albeit in an immensely pleasurable way. The sounds of jazz come out of a shuttered window on one of the walls. An assortment of gardening tools lies on a table, along with a gun. “Don’t worry,” Lighter says. “It’s just a BB gun—for the rats.”
My otherworldly New Orleans moment is broken as Joe Evans, Lighter’s business partner, arrives, and we get down to business. “We are in a very special situation in Louisiana, which may soon be occurring elsewhere, in that we are going to be making a retreat from our eroding coast,” Evans says, with his hands waving madly as he describes the environmental science behind this grim situation. Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s and, according to the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), stands to lose that much again in the next 50 years if nothing is done about it. Without action, the CPRA estimates, annual flood damage will rise from the current average of $2.4 billion to $23.4 billion per year. The agency has a 50-year plan it says will cost $50 billion to make sure that isn’t the case, covering a gamut of flood prevention strategies. It includes raising existing buildings onto stilts, building new levees, and seeding oyster beds, among other moves.
Climate change is often covered by media as the chief culprit that robs Louisiana of its land, though that is an oversimplification, Evans says. Gulf Coast storms are indeed increasing in frequency and intensity, and sea levels in the region have risen a half foot more than the global average over the past century. But the landscape itself is losing the capacity to resist the fury of the sea now that the coastal wetlands have been carved up for oil and gas exploration—about 9,000 miles of canals service more than 50,000 oil wells in southern Louisiana’s wetlands and coastal waters. These straight-line perforations in the landscape are clearly visible in aerial photos, as if a child has taken scissors to the map of Louisiana to make a giant paper snowflake. The wetlands, once the first line of defense against storm surges, are now easily penetrated by the saltwater; vegetation atrophies in the saline conditions, which further weakens its grip on the sandy soils.
But the larger, and less publicized, factor that is causing the continent’s largest system of freshwater wetlands to disappear is a lack of fresh sediment. Historically, naturally occurring coastal erosion was offset by new land formation each year, but the raw ingredient that fueled the process—soil washed from the uplands of the Mississippi River Basin—is largely stuck behind the hundreds of low-head dams that dot the river and its tributaries. Plus, levees along the Lower Mississippi and its distributaries across the deltaic plain prevent sediment deposition in their adjacent floodplains, flushing all that soil out into the gulf instead. To make matters worse, the naturally occurring rate of subsidence in southern Louisiana’s silty soils can measure nearly an inch and a half per year, making sea-level rise appear even more dramatic.
Lighter says the “ditch it, drain it, and wall it off” approach to stormwater management typical of urban development in New Orleans and its environs is deeply at odds with the realities of the landscape. The firm is known for its expertise in integrated stormwater management and habitat restoration. Both Lighter and Evans spout factoids such as, “In hot weather bald cypress trees pump 800 to 1,000 gallons of water into the air through evapotranspiration per day,” like a geyser. The firm’s concept for the Isle de Jean Charles relocation site takes a green infrastructure approach in the hope that it will be a model for future development in the area as other communities relocate. “The site should act as a sponge,” Lighter says.
All of that is fine by the tribe, but Evans says most of their conversations at the community meetings were not about bioswales or vegetation management or erosion as such. They were more like: “We want a front porch. We want to be able to hunt rabbits. We want birds of prey.” The tribe’s mandate was about restoration of culture and community cohesion above all else. In 2002 there were 78 households on the island, but recent storms have scattered the community throughout the parish and beyond. For the tribe, relocation means getting back together. “It’s not just the physical erosion that is a problem. A cultural erosion is taking place,” Evans says. “There has been a history of exclusion, so this is about creating a cultural landscape in an effort to make things right and allow the tribe to unite again.”
On the two-hour drive from New Orleans to Isle de Jean Charles, the highway in places floats above primordial swamps of tupelo and duck potato. This scenery alternates with stretches of industrial buildings ensconced behind a shocking number of billboards that advertise the services of ambulance-chasing lawyers who cater to workers injured on offshore oil rigs. Antebellum mansions reside behind veils of Spanish moss and the low-hanging branches of coastal live oaks, a picturesque backdrop for new tract home subdivisions and their gleaming asphalt. I spot a juvenile alligator, squished flat on the side of the road.
As you approach the coast, the houses are built higher and higher off the ground. South of Houma, the only town in Terrebonne Parish big enough to boast a Walmart, they are on piers two to three feet high. By the time I arrive at the Island Road cutoff—the dead-end route that leads to Isle de Jean Charles—I see tarp-covered mobile homes elevated on makeshift stilts high enough to park a tractor-trailer underneath. There are no signs of new construction.
Poverty is apparent along the coast. “Typically those that have the means to do so have moved out of our most vulnerable communities, and what’s left behind are the people that don’t have the means to do so,” Sanders explains. “That kind of tears at the social fabric.”
Driving to Isle de Jean Charles means first crossing the Morganza to the Gulf levee, an earthen leviathan that snakes through the bayous, its back rising a level 13 feet above the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s first proposed alignment of the 72-mile levee included Isle de Jean Charles within its envelope of protection, but the extra $100 million price tag to do so was later deemed too costly. Thus catastrophic flooding is assumed in the event of a hurricane—the CPRA’s modeling forecasts a 15- to 20-foot storm surge in a 100-year flood scenario.
On the other side of the levee’s hump, in a small gravel pullout on the side of the narrow causeway, I meet up with Chantel Comardelle, the executive secretary of the tribal council. Comardelle is there with a contingent from the Quinault Indian Nation, a tribe from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, which is also attempting to relocate its community in response to the hardships of environmental change. Isle de Jean Charles has an informal exchange program of sorts with other so-called climate refugee communities—community members have corresponded with Hawaiian groups and South Pacific islanders, and traveled to native Alaskan villages that are attempting to relocate inland to escape a rapidly eroding coastline. Both the Alaska and Washington groups applied for NDRC funding but were denied.
The Washington contingent includes a landscape architect, Charles Warsinske, the tribe’s manager of community development and planning, who has spearheaded efforts over the past two years to plan a new village site on higher ground. “It is striking how similar the concerns and the issues and the plans are between down here and up there,” Warsinske says. Cultural sensitivity is required when engaging a community so deeply tied to the landscape about the prospects for its relocation. “So we’re trying not to reinvent the wheel and [to] build upon what others have done.”
Comardelle is pointing out the rows of berms constructed out in the water to dissipate wave action before it hits the levee. Closer to the road are mats of vegetation atop floats made of recycled plastic bottles, an experimental approach to wetland regeneration developed by Martin Ecosystems, an environmental technology company based in Baton Rouge. Despite the pipelines, pumps, and other evidence of oil and gas infrastructure throughout the estuary in front of us, and the numerous signs warning of their hazards, dozens of locals stand alongside the road to cast for shrimp, crab, oysters, and redfish. I look at the GPS map on my phone. It shows solid land on the left side of the causeway where all I see is open water.
“I remember picking pecans here with my grandmother when I was little,” says Comardelle, who moved to Houma when she was four, after a hurricane destroyed the family’s home. She tells of how live oaks once formed a green tunnel around parts of the road that run across the island, and of the fruit and nut trees and extensive garden plots that supplemented the community’s hunting and fishing. But there is little land left now for gardening, and nary a mature tree survives in the island’s salty soil. Across the water is Pointe-aux-Chenes, “Oak Point” in French, where the silhouettes of dead oak trees, casualties of saltwater intrusion, now mark the skinny peninsula.
In the relocation plan, most of the open space is designated for plantings of useful native species, such as Chickasaw plum, pawpaw, and American lotus, and others used for food, medicine, or craft. The site is organized after the leaf pattern of a palmetto, traditionally used for roofs, baskets, and brooms. The proposal reshapes an existing canal and drainage ditch at the new site into a bayou that will snake by almost every home to supply fish and stormwater capacity. One quadrant of the 500 acres is slated as a paddy of wild rice and crawfish.
Then there is the American bison paddock. The region was a winter grazing ground for migrating herds. Patches of high land in the area were once home to oak woodlands interspersed with open savanna, known as the Cajun Prairie, subject to fires and the grazing of large ungulates. “It’s a highly endangered ecosystem,” says Evans, who recently worked with the Coast Guard to restore 27 acres of Cajun Prairie. “This would be the largest restoration to date on private land.”
But no firm guidelines have been established for how the $48 million may be spent. After sitting in on a meeting at the Houma library among members of the tribe, the Washington group, the Lowlander Center, and Evans + Lighter, I join the tribal chief Albert Naquin and his wife, Patsy, beneath a shade canopy outside their home in Montegut, about 20 minutes inland from Isle de Jean Charles. He fills me in on the latest news in the relocation process. The Office of Community Development has hired Pan American Engineers as a consultant to gather information in anticipation of releasing a request for proposals later this year for a master developer to continue the planning and design process. The Office of Community Development was an active and willing partner in generating the conceptual plan used in the grant application. But Naquin is worried by the use of terms such as “housing project” and “subdivision” at his most recent meetings with the agency. He is also concerned that the Lowlander Center, Evans + Lighter, and their plan will be swept aside by the new consultants. “We don’t need another subdivision. That’s not a model for anything,” he says. “We just want what we had prior to all the destruction.” Naquin refers to HUD’s wording when it announced the grant—the funds will enable the Isle de Jean Charles tribe “to relocate to a resilient and historically contextual community”—and points out that the tribe has significant leverage in holding the Office of Community Development to that mission: They don’t have to move. He believes the tribe will opt out if the plans turn into a prototypical housing project.
The next day, Kristina Peterson, director of the Lowlander Center, takes me for a drive up the county highway north of Houma to the site on which the conceptual plan is based—though this, too, is subject to change as the new consultants carry out their vetting process—and I see why Naquin says there is no need for another subdivision: The area is full of them already. Peterson explains that the creep of new housing developments in northern Terrebonne Parish was fueled by job growth in the oil industry during the boom years of the mid to late aughts, and by longtime residents’ relocating away from the coast more recently. “These McMansions have all sprung up in the last 10 years,” she says. She points out one half-finished “estate lot” subdivision after another. We drive through a housing development built by Habitat for Humanity for refugees of Hurricane Katrina as an example of what she hopes the tribe’s project does not become—a barracks only a decade old, already looking dilapidated.
“This all used to be hackberries, pecans, mulberries, persimmons—landscape that the birds and wildlife just thrived on—and it is all going by the wayside for cute little palms in front of the houses,” Peterson says. Stormwater management consists of a drainage ditch in front of each house.
With a current elevation of about 10 to 12 feet above sea level, the area north of Houma where the tribe plans to relocate has not suffered severe flooding in past hurricanes, but Peterson is concerned about the concrete slab foundations going in on all the new homes when the CPRA’s risk modeling tool indicates flood depths of five feet or more here in a 100-year storm event. If built on piers, they would be much easier to raise onto stilts in a possible future scenario where homeowners begin to sense that the Gulf of Mexico is coming uncomfortably close. In the relocated Isle de Jean Charles site she envisions a model that remedies Louisiana’s water woes rather than re-creates them. “We’re quickly creating another problem here, and the parish is going to be stuck holding the bill when all this stuff floods,” she says. “The [Isle de Jean Charles] project is looking ahead to create something sustainable for the next 50 to 100 years, and provide ecosystem services in the meantime to the surrounding area.” For now, a head-high swath of sugarcane between a Chevron facility and the offices of ProServ, an offshore drilling company, marks the desired site for the relocation.
Brian Barth is a Toronto-based writer focused on culture, design, energy, and the environment.