Communities on the front lines seek help from Congress

By Amanda Reilly | 05/18/2016 07:28 AM EDT

U.S. communities that describe themselves as being on the front lines of climate change are seeking help from Congress for relocating and cleaning up after natural disasters.

U.S. communities that describe themselves as being on the front lines of climate change are seeking help from Congress for relocating and cleaning up after natural disasters.

Sea-level rise, erosion and new ice patterns are causing some U.S. tribal island communities to start the process of relocating to the mainland and cities. Other minority communities, particularly in the Gulf Coast region, face the threat of more frequent and severe storms and associated cleanup costs.

At a Capitol Hill briefing yesterday, these "climate refugees" urged the federal government to put in place a national program to help people relocate, to consider climate change in immigration reform and to bar offshore drilling in the Arctic.


"There’s need for a policy framework, for a program that enables communities to resettle, together as a community, due to the climate crisis," said Démé Naquin, tribal nation adviser and elder in the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians.

Naquin’s ancestors fled to the Isle de Jean Charles in southern Louisiana to escape relocation programs of the 1800s. Now the island is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico due to coastal erosion and sea-level rise. The island has lost 98 percent of its land over the last six decades, according to Naquin.

Many of the island’s residents have already moved to the mainland. Naquin said that, of the 80 houses and more than 300 people who lived on the island in 2002, only 27 houses and 70 people remained in 2008.

"I was forced to move to the mainland because of island road floods," Naquin said. "At times, I could not get to work. There are children who miss school because school buses don’t run through the island."

In January, the island community received a $48 million grant through the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which is a collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Rockefeller Foundation. The grant — the first of its kind — is meant to help the entire community relocate to higher ground (Greenwire, March 1).

But Naquin said yesterday that his community has yet to hear from HUD or the state of Louisiana on the resettlement plan and that it’s worried that the scope of the project will downsize and that "they may turn resettlement into some kind of public housing."

"What we’re here for is support from all of you, whatever you can do to support in getting our resettlement done, make it go through whichever way possible," Naquin implored of the audience at the briefing arranged by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). "Stop all the politics."

The island is, in a sense, a guinea pig for future resettlement, he said.

"The tribal resettlement will be a learning incubator," he said. "It’s testing best practices for restoring the coast. The first pass at a resilient community in coastal Louisiana requires investment."

The remote Shishmaref village off Alaska, home to residents of the Native Inupiaq people, is also struggling with how to cope with climate impacts. According to Esau Sinnok, an 18-year-old Arctic youth ambassador and climate advocate from the village, the land there is also shrinking.

Surrounding water is also freezing in late November or early December, compared with when it used to freeze in late September and early October, and the island’s people have to delay fishing for their winter diet.

Sinnok said yesterday that many of the island’s residents have already moved to cities such as Anchorage.

‘Nobody sees the connections’

Colette Pichon Battle, director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy, said that communities on the front lines of climate change along the Gulf of Mexico particularly struggle with navigating the politics of the contentious issue.

"We live in an area of the country where you can’t say climate change. We actually, in Florida, can’t say the words. We can’t put it on government documents," Battle said. "We live in the part of the country that folks give up on, and we sacrifice the area that I live in to Big Oil, big industry all the time."

Prior to yesterday’s Hill briefing, Battle, a native of Louisiana, said she marched Sunday in Washington, D.C., in protests against new offshore oil and gas drilling leases (E&E Daily, May 16). She and other advocates also met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to stress a link between issues that affect minority communities, such as education and crime, and climate change.

Along with seeking help in relocating communities and barring drilling, Battle yesterday also called on Congress to consider climate change in any forthcoming immigration reform.

In a brief interview with E&E Daily, Battle said that protection was needed for migrant workers who come legally to the United States to work for companies to clean up after the natural disasters that are expected to become more frequent with climate change.

Battle cited the well-documented example of Hurricane Katrina, where workers faced unsafe conditions or low wages but were fired and automatically lost their immigration status when they asked for better working conditions.

"We would have to fix that," she said, adding that she hasn’t seen any push from Congress to address the issue in the context of climate change.

"Nobody sees the connections," Battle said, "and there’s no reason you would if you haven’t lived through this stuff."

Grijalva took at a swipe at Republicans in Congress for failing to act on climate change.

"The phenomena that people are talking about is just an outgrowth of inability to come to grips with climate change and to deal with it effectively," Grijalva said, adding, "Sticking the collective heads of Congress into the sand is not going to solve the problem, and I hope we learn that being assertive and aggressive from our administration or future administration on this subject is vital and important."