Rising Seas Create First American Refugees

In Americas, News Headlines, Rising Seas

Climate change, particularly unprecedented sea level rise, is already creating refugees in the United States.

Back in January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it will allocate $1 billion in grants to 13 states to help them adapt to climate change. The projects will include building stronger dams as well as drainage systems.

Among those grants was $48 million for Isle de Jean Charles, the first time federal tax dollars were reserved for moving an entire community mired with the impacts of climate change. The low-lying island on the Gulf coast of Louisiana is already sinking.

The island is home to a few dozen people whose way of life is rooted from generations back. They are now getting displaced and turned into climate refugees.
“We’re going to lose all our heritage, all our culture. It’s all going to be history,” mourned Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the tribe where most of the island’s residents belong, in a New York Times report.

From once being 22,000 acres in size, the island has now been reduced to only 320 acres. According to 2009 data reported by Northern Arizona University, only 25 houses remained occupied, down from 63 only five years earlier.
In a release, Louisiana Office of Community Development executive director Pat Forbes said that the tribe is frontlining the disaster of Louisiana’s coastal land loss. The grant, she added, will help them resettle to a safer location and serve as a model for resettlement of endangered U.S. communities.

Since the 1950s, the Native American tribe has already lost some 98 percent of its land to climbing sea levels, flooding and coastal erosion, with the island suspected to be totally submerged in a matter of 50 years.
Naquin expressed excitement in an Indian Country Today interview over their “chance to reunite the family” and keep the culture intact.

According to reports, the tribe will remain owners of the island even after relocating to its new community, something that could take place as soon as 2019. The first-of-its-kind grant must be spent by 2022.
The Louisiana tribe members are far from being alone as the country’s official climate refugees. In Alaska, more than 180 villages are affected by climate change, the worst off being the Yupik community of Newtok that is forecasted to be fully submerged by 2017.

The United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration estimated that climate change could displace as many as 200 million individuals by 2050. Most of these would likely be fisherfolk and farmers relying on the environment for their livelihood.

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