Isle de Jean Charles: Bayou St. Jean Charles
Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana
Dangling out at the end of a thread in the Point aux Chenes Wildlife Management Area is the narrow ridge created by Bayou St. Jean Charles. The string, the island road actually, connects the community of Isle St. Jean Charles to solid ground at Point aux Chenes, where a new, gated community was being built in the fall of 2006. A fourteen-foot hurricane levee will protect the new houses in the gated subdivision. No such levee will protect the small wooden houses that line Bayou Jean Charles, which bisects its narrow ridge. Fiddler crabs drag their single claws along the muddy banks of the stream. Rickety wooden walks connect the houses on the far side of the bayou to the single road that runs the length of the island.
Isle St. Jean Charles is the home of a group of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws. Before the road, a dirt track built through the marshes in 1953, islanders came and went by boat and made their livings from the marshes–fishing, shrimping, crabbing, and trapping. In 1960s the road was upgraded with crushed clamshells, with black top in the 1970s, and raised and fortified with granite boulders, against which waves can crash, in the 1990s. It promptly sank six inches. High tide can cover it and swamp the wetlands to the north. Hurricanes can flood it. Rita poured four feet of water over it. The history of the road is the history of the marshes on either side of it. They, too, have sunk. By the end of the twentieth century where residents of the island once grazed their cattle and grew their corn, potatoes, beans, okra, and melons had turned to a salt marsh or open water.
Until the early 1900s islanders built their houses of “bousillage,” a mixture of clay and mud and roofed them with domes woven from the palmetto that thrived under the live oaks woods that once shaded their houses and anchored their ridge for a quarter mile back. Now, live oaks are dead; their skeletons rake the sky.
The residents of Isle St. Jean Charles measure their years by what hurricane hit when: Hilda in 1964 flooded the island with thirty-six inches, Betsy in 1965 tore off roofs and siding, Carmen in 1974–thirty-eight inches of water, Juan in 1984–eighteen inches, Danny in 1985–more water, Andrew in 1992–eighteen inches, Lili in 2002 battered houses, Katrina in 2005 blew off roofs, Rita in 2005 blew in four feet of water. FEMA never showed, nor did the American Red Cross. As more and more families left, the community, like the marshes, fragmented. Half the 240 people living on the island in 1997 were gone by 2006.[i]
Isle de Jean Charles is being lost to the destruction of the Louisiana Deltaic Marshes by careless oil and gas drilling. And it continues. It is also being lost to rising sea levels.
For more read the following article in Daily Kos.
[i] Quaid, John, “Written Off: The Gulf is slowly swallowing Isle de Jean Charles and other south Louisiana towns,” Special Edition: Washing Away, 1997, New Orleans Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com/hurricane/index.ssf?/washingaway/writtenoff_4.html; Norrell, Brenda, “Living in the aftermoth of two Killer storms,” Indian Country Today, October 2, 2006, http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096413755.