ISLE de JEAN CHARLES, La. – The Gulf of Mexico has been closing in on Rita Falgout’s native soil for all of her 81 years. Now the island that has been her home is just a thin spit of land – the last 320 of what was once 22,000 acres being chewed away by the surrounding waters.
Falgout says it may finally be time to hit the road -- if the road is passable. The two-mile asphalt ribbon that connects the island to the mainland (above) is sometimes swamped during high tide and always underwater during big storms.
“I’d rather move,” said Falgout, who lives with her husband of more than 60 years, Roosevelt, in a house that rises on creosote-soaked poles above flowering cactus and partially disassembled lawn mowers. “They told us if we want to stay here, we’re on our own. They want us to go to Blue Bayou. It’s a nice place.”
Those offering this new home to Falgout are government officials. Flush with a $48.3 million federal grant, the state has offered to cover relocation costs for the Falgouts and the roughly 100 other residents of Isle de Jean Charles. Their plight, along with those who live in small coastal villages in Alaska and Washington state, has received wide attention in stories casting them as the first American victims of climate change.
What has received less notice is the price tag attached to the efforts. While the final cost in Louisiana remains unknown, already the price for moving the residents, who occupy 30 or so largely ramshackle houses on the island, works out to at least $500,000 per person.
If government’s response to Isle de Jean is a dress rehearsal for how it will respond in the years ahead to the rising sea levels predicted by those alarmed by climate change, the costs will be daunting, even prohibitive. Current global warming models predict that by 2100, between 4 million and 13 million Americans could be displaced by rising sea levels, according to the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Going from the most optimistic to the most alarming scenario, the relocation bill for those people, at half a million dollars per person, would come to between $2 trillion to $6.5 trillion.
“If the costs are going to be in the trillions, then it will come down to policy decisions about what you’re able to do,” said Alexander S. Kolker of Tulane University’s Earth and Environmental Studies department. “I don’t think we have the money in hand to do that.”
And those trillions would just go to relocating people. The cost of moving or replacing major infrastructure, including ports and industrial facilities, may be incalculable, Kolker noted.
“I can’t see what the number would be, but it has to be colossal,” he said, before offering a hypothetical: “Just look at New Jersey and all the infrastructure around Newark. Refineries? How do you move those? Do they have to be rebuilt?”
Whether almost $50 million will be enough for Isle de Jean Charles’ wholesale relocation isn’t clear. Louisiana officials have released neither an overall budget for the relocation nor details of the contract they signed with a master planner in September, more than a year and a half after the Department of Housing and Urban Development made the grant.
Neither Pat Forbes, the executive director of Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, nor Mathew Sanders, the OCD pointman on the project, responded to multiple phone calls and emails from RealClearInvestigations. Jacques Berry, director of policy and communication for Louisiana’s Division of Administration, and Janice Lovett, a press officer with the state community development office, also did not respond to requests for comment.
Edison Dardar Jr., 68, has a simpler solution. “If they gave me a million dollars I might think about it,” said the lifelong resident, as he tossed a net in a bayou near the road for his dinner of shrimp and crabs.
Though Dardar is half joking, it could well be much cheaper to simply write individual checks to residents to compensate them for lost homes and take care of their moves. In Terrebonne Parish, where Isle de Jean Charles sits and where the federal government has declared storm disasters regularly since 1998, the median home price today is $174,000, according to Zillow. Coldwell Banker has 28 houses for sale in Golden Meadow for a median price of $144,950, while other real estate websites fix prices even lower.
One reason the government is not taking the individual-buyout approach is that the population of Isle de Jean Charles is comprised largely of Native Americans -- members of the Houma and Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribes. They are considered a cohesive community worth relocating intact. “Although the island has been both a home and a historically significant landmark for nearly 200 years, community resettlement is inevitable,” according to the community development office.
But with relocation, as opposed to collocation -- the term given for simply moving residents into some existing nearby community -- there are steep associated costs. A new town is essentially being built from scratch. That means new roads, sewerage, perhaps schools and what have you.
In Alaska, where low-lying communities are often isolated tundra outposts, construction can even require an airport. Documents from the Denali Commission, the government agency handling relocation projects in Alaska, suggests the massive nature of such efforts. One project for a town there involves a “an airport, solid waste landfill, wastewater collection and wastewater treatment lagoon, bulk fuel farm, fuel dispensing facility, power house and power distribution system, water treatment plant, water storage tank, water distribution lines, barge landing, [and a] town center consisting of housing, school, public buildings and subdivision roads and all associated connecting roads.”
The need to move some Alaskan towns is even more pressing than in Louisiana, according to Don Antrobus, a program manager with the Denali Commission, who said he understands why some taxpayers may balk at the high costs. But, he notes, some far-north towns face immediate flooding concerns; like earthquakes and hurricanes, the rising seas are natural disasters demanding relief.
“We provide support to people when there are events, catastrophic events,” Antrobus said. “So what are the impacts if we do nothing? Then there’d be an emergency response and where are they going to go? There are significant costs if we do nothing.”
Kolker said the danger posed by rising seas to much of the mainland U.S. is different. Unlike in Alaska and Louisiana, the threat is not imminent but decades down the road. He compared the situation to retirement, a thing fixed at a future date calling for advance planning that gets easier the more that gets accomplished beforehand. But the lines of obligation aren’t clear: If something predictable will happen decades from now to private homeowners, to what extent should taxpayers shoulder that cost?
“This is a big-hearted country after disasters, but we don’t want to be soft-headed before disasters,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense. “When people see these big packages being spent, they need to remember most of it is going to infrastructure, not individuals. But while there is a role for the federal government in all this, there has to be some personal responsibility and some community responsibility. Why should the federal taxpayer be on the hook again and again and again?”
For the moment, no one has put taxpayers on the hook for the more than $100 million required to move Newtok, a village of roughly 400 residents facing an immediate saltwater threat. Antrobus estimated that relocating Newtok to a spot on Nelson Island roughly 10 miles away on the Ningliq River would cost between $100 million and $120 million.
There, as with Isle de Jean Charles, maintaining cultural cohesion takes on added urgency and expense because the population is largely Native American.
But Antrobus cautioned against extrapolating Alaskan costs to relocation efforts in the lower 48 states.
“Things are more expensive here,” he said. “The remoteness is a cost.” There is a shorter building season in Alaska, supplies have to be sent up the Ningliq River by barge -- everything is more difficult and pricey, Antrobus said.
Many experts believe the need to relocate people will become acute. While rising sea levels in threatened areas might make further development unwise, it often continues nonetheless. The reasons range from local communities’ desire to keep tax revenue flowing from valuable resort properties to flood insurance rates kept artificially low by taxpayer subsidies, said Karen O’Neill, a Rutgers University sociologist who specializes in coastal communities and planning. Thus far, she said, China and Vietnam are the only countries that have successfully thwarted development in places that may require expensive relocations due to “climate migration” in the near or mid-term.
“And you know what kind of political system is in place there,” O’Neill said.
Circumstances and attitudes are much different in the United States, not least on Isle de Jean Charles. Barely suppressing a smile, Dardar finds the idea of relocation absurd, and out of the question. While not all of his grown children agree with him, he said, most of his family is as committed as he is to staying put.
“Where’m I going to go?” he said. “I’ve been nowhere else for 68 years and I’m not going to spend more years somewhere else.”