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Relocation for Natives on Bayou Island?
September 21, 2008

POINTE AU CHENE, La.—With floodwaters finally receding and shelters largely emptied, residents of hurricane-scarred bayou communities have returned home in earnest to clean up the damages left behind by Gustav and Ike.

The back-to-back hurricanes brought wind and water damage to many homes along this coastal belt including low-lying neighborhoods populated by Louisiana's Native tribes.

Members of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe [14], the Isle de Jean Charles and Lafourche bands of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation [15] and the United Houma Nation [1] were among the hardest hit by Gustav, which struck on Labor Day. Ike followed 10 days later. Even though it made landfall in Texas more than 170 miles away, the south wind and churning waters swamped the bayou communities with floods and surging sea levels that engulfed entire neighborhoods and turned roadways into waterways.

"The two hurricanes really hit our people hard," said Charles "Chuckie" Verdin, chief of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, which has about 700 members in the area. "But they're slowly beginning to recover.

"Almost everybody got wind damage from Gustav," he added. "The waters then came up for Ike and it has stayed that way for days so everyone has some water damage now."

'Worse Than I Thought'

Verdin and other local tribal leaders took local, state and federal officials last week through the stricken areas of the Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes that included the communities of Pointe-aux-Chenes, Montague and Isle de Jean Charles.

Some officials, like Mark Ford, the executive director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Indian Affairs [16], were making their first visit into the region.

"It was worse than I thought," Ford said as he surveyed the damage from the passenger seat in Verdin's truck.

As he rode slowly through the neighborhoods, he could see the torn roofs and buildings ripped apart by Hurricane Gustav. Some houses were piles of rubble. Others, lashed by Hurricane Ike, still stood several feet in water from the storm surges and overflowing bayous that had crested the banks and flooded low-lying houses and remained deep enough on the road to prevent many people from reaching their homes.

Emily Pitre, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, told the gathering of officials who came to her neighborhood, that she couldn't get to her house for days because of the flooded roads and then only by boat. She said that at one point her son described their community in a different way.

"He said, ‘It's like we're in Venice, like we're in a gondola. Let's call it Gondola City,' " she said.

Complaints to Officials

Pitre was among those residents who complained to officials — including representatives of Federal Emergency Management Agency [17]and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals [18] — that the standing water had turned brackish, stagnant and unhealthy. And in some communities, free tetanus shots are being offered to residents.

At one point during the sightseeing trip, the truck carrying Ford, the governor's aide, stopped near a local general store up the bayou as people came out to distribute water bottles. One smiling man walked to the truck window to exchange pleasantries with Verdin before being introduced to Ford.

"What did you see down there?" the man asked as he handed over a water bottle.

"A mess," Ford replied, and the succinct answer erased the smile from the man's face as he slowly shook his head.

The destruction left behind by the twin hurricanes could be seen on Pointe-aux-Chenes, which includes rows of homes on both sides of the bayou. But it was especially clear on Isle de Jean Charles, the island home of fewer than 100 families, where the lone access road connecting the strip of land to the mainland took visitors into a scene of broken homes, twisted buildings and seas of mud.

"There were a number of houses destroyed and more suffering major damage," said Albert Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimachas.

Naquin's brother, Pierre, stood on the balcony of his island home and said he and his wife Marilyn were among the fortunate few whose house suffered some roof damage but was left largely untouched by the avalanche of water. "We were one of the lucky ones," he said

An Uncertain Future

For now, in addition to the massive clean-up and rebuilding campaign, the question for the islanders is what to do in the future.

Naquin and the others at the meeting, including Terrebonne Parish President Michel Claudet, pushed the idea of relocating the permanent residents — who are virtually all Native Americans — to another place away from the perils of hurricanes and the floods they bring. It was an idea supported by Albert Naquin and the other chiefs at the meeting.

"We don't want to relocate them but there is nothing else we can do," said Claudet of the island residents. "It's a step in the right direction."

While the conversation swirled around whether to make such relocation mandatory, Randy Verdun, chief of the Bayou Lafourche Band of the Biloxi-Chitimachas, said any such scenario involving the islanders would have to be weighed carefully.

"The only way we will do it is as a unit so we can keep the community intact," he said.

One notable tribal leader who was not at the meeting but met the government officials later in the day, decried those pushing for any mandatory relocation and said any such plan would have to be voluntary.

"It should be up to the island people to decide what they want to do," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation, which counts some of the residents of Isle de Jean Charles as its members. "You can't force them to relocate."

Houma Relief Center

During their visit to the Houma chief in Raceland, La., Ford and the other government officials were able to see first-hand how the Houma tribe is assisting Natives victimized by the storms. They met with tribal council members and walked through an old general store that had been converted into a relief center packed with food, diapers, cleaning supplies and other goods donated by the Red Cross, Wal-Mart, Second Harvest and others. They also were told of relief supplies going out into the community.

Ford said he was impressed with the relief efforts of the Houma and their organized response to the crisis among its 17,000 members. He also said the visits to Pointe-aux-Chenes and the island were important to meet tribal leaders of the smaller tribes and to visit those communities first-hand.

"It was important to actually be there and see how some people are ready to move and some want to stay [in the community]," he said.

Ford added that it was also important to let the Native community know that officials in government "are listening and some of us really care and want to help."