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Photo: Jonathan Bachman/Reuters.
In Louisiana, climate change is erasing Isle de Jean Charles. French-speaking and indigenous residents are moving to higher ground, amid fears of losing their language and culture.

We all know someone who begins to rebuild right after a natural disaster like a wildfire or hurricane, and who are we to judge? But as extreme weather incidents become more common, some of those most affected are, with aching hearts, facing the necessity to be practical.

Patrick Cox reported at PRI’s the World, “Hurricane Ida killed dozens of Lousianans and displaced tens of thousands of others. Among the hardest hit were bilingual and French-speaking communities close to the Mississippi Delta. 

“Alces Adams lives halfway between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico in the small community of Cut Off in Lafourche Parish. Hurricane Ida destroyed his trailer.

“People in this part of Louisiana — bayou country — have long learned to live under adverse weather conditions. But things have gotten much worse in recent years. Rising sea levels, erosion and storm after storm have flooded entire communities. For some French speakers, Hurricane Ida was the last straw, and now many are moving away.

“A year after Ida, Adams’ trailer looks just as it did the day after the storm — twisted and torn apart with furniture spilling out, as if attacked by a pack of wild animals. Next to it is a new trailer, Adams’ temporary home provided by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Adams was born a block away in his grandparents’ house. His family’s older generation spoke only French. Adams said his grandmother learned English, but refused to speak it, except for one word: ‘Yeah.’ 

“ ‘English was forced on us about 100 years ago,’ Adams said. That’s when English was declared the only language of instruction in public schools. Adams recalled listening to his older relatives as they told him stories in French. Even then, he said, he considered the language beautiful. ‘I loved listening to that.’

“Adams’ grandmother and others told him stories of storms and floods they had survived. It helped prepare him — still a child — when Hurricane Betsy battered the region in 1965. …

“Adams doesn’t know what’s next for him. He comes from a long line of Cajuns who he said were compelled to move from one place to another, to escape poverty or discrimination, or hurricanes and flooding. 

“The French language has been a constant in all of this generational change. Adams knows that each time a French speaker moves away, it’s another micro-blow to the survival of French in southern Louisiana.

“Tulane University linguist Nathalie Dajko has been tracking the decline of French in Lafourche and neighboring Terrebonne Parishes for nearly 20 years. She was in graduate school at Tulane when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. It left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Some even ended up in camps that were scattered across several southern states. Dajko visited a few of the camps as part of a gig she had with Save the Children, a nongovernmental organization.

“ ‘Every now and again, we’d come across these French speakers,’ Dajko said. ‘They would be so excited to meet somebody who spoke French, and they would talk about how they missed the French.’ …

“Louisiana French isn’t standard Parisian French. But French has had longstanding roots in the region after France claimed it in 1682. With the area drawing French speakers, the language gained a foothold. It even spread to local Indigenous tribes in the 1700s. They’d formed protective alliances with the colonial French against the British. Some of their descendants still speak French, especially those who live closer to the ocean — and the floods and storms.

“Across a causeway from one of the larger bayous in Terrebonne Parish is an island called Isle de Jean Charles. Abandoned dwellings are everywhere: collapsed walls, caved-in roofs, debris. A couple of the houses are being fixed up. But most aren’t.  Near the end of the road, a house with a sign outside says, ‘Isle de Jean Charles is not dead.’ … 

“Chris Brunet, who answered the door in a wheelchair, said he spoke French at home and English at school. Like Alces Adams, Brunet’s grandmother only spoke French; his parents were bilingual. Everyone living on the island was a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. …

“ ‘Hurricane Ida is the first storm to damage the house,’ he said, pointing out his damaged roof. … Likely to be gone soon is this entire island. In the past 65 years, Isle de Jean Charles has shrunk from 22,000 acres to just 320. 

“It’s not just the storms. There are many reasons why the land is vanishing: rising sea levels, the rerouting of the Mississippi river — some of it natural, some engineered — canal construction, land erosion, some of that caused by oil and gas extraction. Then there’s the levee system, expanded after Hurricane Katrina: a life-saver for those living within it; potentially catastrophic if you’re on the outside of it.

“That’s why Brunet, and almost everyone else on the island, is leaving, with federal government assistance, to a city 35 miles inland where virtually no one speaks French.

“ ‘If I had to predict, I would suggest that people are not going to maintain French,’ linguist Nathalie Dajko said. … Still, Dajko has studied these French and bilingual communities for close to two decades, and said they’re full of surprises. 

“ ‘People have been predicting the death of Louisiana French for generations and it just won’t die,’ she said.”

More at the World, here. For a refresher on Longfellow’s fictional Evangeline, one of the French-speaking Acadians expelled from Canada to settle in Louisiana, click here.

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