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Coastal Desk

Welcome To 'The New Isle': Isle De Jean Charles Residents Get A First Look At Their New Home

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Tegan Wendland
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Simon Naquin and his fiancé have selected interior and exterior color schemes for their new home on The New Isle. Officials say the homes should be complete by next year.

On a recent Wednesday, state employees with the Office of Community Development welcomed Louisianans as they pulled into what will soon be their new driveway. They handed out information folders and showed residents to the empty plots of land where their new homes will one day stand. Signs mark the names of future residents: Chaisson. Dardar. Billiot. Naquin. Brunet.

They’re coming from the tiny island of Isle de Jean Charles, about 26 miles southeast of Houma. The community is on the frontlines of that land loss, and about six years ago, the state received a federal grant on behalf of the residents to help them move to safety.

Now, the residents of Isle de Jean Charles finally have a new plot of land to move to: “The New Isle,” just north of Houma.

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Tegan Wendland
Isle de Jean Charles is just a fraction of what it once was, due to coastal erosion caused by oil and gas canals carved through coastal marshes, natural subsidence, and sea level rise.

For now, the 512 acres in Schriever are still under construction as excavators and backhoes prepare for the new houses. They’re even digging out the unimpressive bayou to create more of a water feature, called Bayou Blue, and help the residents, many of whom have spent generations living off the water, feel a little more at home in their new environment.

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Tegan Wendland
Developers are expanding a small bayou that runs through the property to create a larger water feature where residents can gather and fish. It will also serve as water retention to mitigate flood risk.

Project manager James Andermann, with CSRS Inc., a Baton Rouge-based consulting firm, said the idea is to make it as much like the island landscape as possible. By next year, he hopes, “we’ll have 40 beautiful single-family residences on lots that are well above the 500-year flood plain.”

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The design for The New Isle incorporates water features and undeveloped woods, in an attempt to make the landscape familiar to the displaced residents of Isle de Jean Charles.

For Simon Naquin, the orientation was a bittersweet day. He said he felt “sad and happy in the same day.” He said the decision felt inevitable for him and his fiancé. He just wishes his mother would be able to move with them. She passed away in 2018, before she could see The New Isle.

“She was excited to come here,” he said.

He’s planning to have his wedding here once it’s finished — whenever that is.

The relocation has taken longer than expected. Community members worked with the state to apply for the $48 million grant under the Obama administration back in 2016.

Some elders have passed away in that time. And more hurricanes have threatened the dwindling island, now just a fraction of what it once was.

Thirty-seven families on the island have applied and been approved for homes at the new site, some 40 miles north.

Chris Brunet and his niece Juliette and nephew Howard have been caught in an international spotlight as they migrate north. They’re the subjects of a recent Netflix documentary by a Danish director, called Lowland Kids. The film crew continues to follow them, boom mics and cameras on their every move.

“I really never wanted to leave the island,” Brunet admits. “It’s coastal erosion that has brung me to make this decision.”

The New Isle is nothing like the old place. It’s flatter, there’s less water. “We know it’s not the Isle de Jean Charles, it's a different setting, it's a different landscape,” Brunet said.

His nephew Howard added, “It's like a desert.”

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Tegan Wendland
The New Isle has been five years in the making. Signs mark the sites that have been chosen for development for the residents of Isle de Jean Charles.

19-year-old Howard doesn’t plan to move here with his uncle, partly because he’s not allowed to. He applied, but was told he was too young to qualify. He might purchase a lot nearby, instead.

The state has worked hard to make space for people like him. They’ve included empty lots for those who didn’t qualify for a free house to purchase and build near their families.

Pat Forbes, executive director of the Office of Community Development, said he understands why people’s feelings on orientation day are mixed. It’d been theoretical until that moment. For many families, seeing where their new homes will be what makes the inevitable much more real.

“The next step is accepting that your home, that you grew up in and that your parents grew up in, is going away,” he said. “I wish that we didn't have to do this. I'm glad that we can.”

He said they’ve learned that no matter what you do, relocating people is hard. There’s one thing he knows for sure: next time, there won’t be as much money.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

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