Indigenous Communities Feel Like a ‘Sacrifice Zone’ in the Wake of Ida’s Destruction thumbnail

Indigenous Communities Feel Like a ‘Sacrifice Zone’ in the Wake of Ida’s Destruction

People walk across the deck of a home severely damaged by Hurricane Ida on Aug. 31, 2021 in Montegut, Louisiana.

Photo: Scott Olson (Getty Images)

Christine Verdin, 62, serves on the recovery committee for the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, of which she is a member. Since Sunday, she’s been hard at work gathering data on the damage Hurricane Ida wrought in her corner of southeast Louisiana.

“It’s like a bomb went off in our community,” she wrote in a text message.

The tribe, a community of about 700 people, resides in southeastern Louisiana’s Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, which are separated by the Bayou Pointe-au-Chien. Those parishes were among the hardest-hit by Ida when the storm roared ashore as a Category 4 hurricane earlier this week. There’s still no electricity and water in the community. Many cell transmitters are still offline, so phone service is also spotty. Verdin spent the weekend with her sister in Mississippi to avoid the storm, but most of her tribe stayed put. In the two days after Ida touched down, Verdin said she was unable to reach her brother, who is the chairperson of the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe and who stayed at home during the storm.

Though much coverage has been made of Hurricane Ida’s impacts on New Orleans—which were indeed bad as the city was left in the dark—other places were dealt a more severe blow. Indigenous communities were hit hard by the hurricane, yet some Native organizers say they’ve received little attention even as they struggle with Ida’s damage.

Nearly every other home in Verdin’s community suffered damages. (Hers was, thankfully, largely spared.) Of the dozens of houses, Verdin estimates that just a handful on each side of the bayou are still livable. The Point-au-Chien tribal building was also demolished by Ida’s powerful storm surge, winds, and rain.

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Verdin remembers hurricanes striking her community when she was a child, but back then, barrier islands of wetlands acted as a safeguard by absorbing the brunt of storm surge. Thanks to subsidence and sea level rise caused by burning said fuels, Louisiana has been losing wetlands at an alarming rate over the past 80 years.

The fossil fuel industry has carved and dredged canals into the land, creating a pathway for boats, drilling rigs, and pipelines to run through the marsh. These canals expand as saltwater runs into them from the sea, killing off the vegetation that glues the marshlands together. When it rains, storms wash away the soil.

“They would kind of give a buffer to us,” she said on the phone. “Those are not there anymore.”

As a result, the Gulf of Mexico is encroaching on the Pointe-au-Chien tribe—every year, the Louisiana coast loses about 16 square miles (41 square kilometers) to the sea. At the same time, the region has been slammed by hurricane after hurricane, which have intensified in part due to the climate crisis.

“We’ve seen so many hurricanes,” said Verdin. One of them, 2005’s Hurricane Rita, the most intense tropical cyclone on record in the Gulf of Mexico, destroyed Verdin’s childhood home.

Over the past three decades, as homes have been damaged by hurricanes, many Pointe-au-Chien families have chosen to rebuild their houses on stilts that stand 15 to 17 feet (roughly 5 meters) high. But Verdin said Ida’s surge even demolished some of those.

Repairs are expensive and capital is scarce. Many men in the Point-au-Chien community catch shrimp for a living, but amid active hurricane seasons, it can be too dangerous to take trawling boats out. Hurricane Ida has decimated the shrimping industry, destroying boats and equipment. And long before the hurricane, the sector was already in trouble due to pollution from the 2010 BP oil spill as well as the Gulf “dead zone” in which pollution from fertilizer, sewage, and other contaminants creates a low oxygen area that can kill off marine life.

A destroyed home of a member of the Port-au-Chien Tribe.

A destroyed home of a member of the Port-au-Chien Tribe.
Photo: Port-au-Chien Tribe

The Point-au-Chien aren’t the only Indigenous community reeling after Hurricane Ida. The neighboring Houma Nation, whose 17,000 members live in a region that spreads across six Louisiana parishes along the southeastern coast, were also hit hard by the storm.

An official from the tribe told Native News Today that members of the community were killed by the storm, but it is not yet clear how many. Authorities are still gathering information on casualties and injuries, but the process has been more difficult due to the lack of electricity, internet, and reliable cell service, as well as because of the damage their tribal building suffered.

Houma Nation member, filmmaker, and organizer with Another Gulf Is Possible Monique Verdin (Verdin is a common surname among Gulf Coast Indigenous communities) evacuated her home to stay in Pensacola, Florida during the storm, but has been coordinating relief work from afar.

“It seems we’ll need a lot of resources,” she said, noting federal relief can be difficult to access for Indigenous communities. “It all depends on how what your paperwork looks like [or] if you even have the paperwork. How you are able to navigate those systems and keep up with them? Like, do you have access to technology? Or do you know how to navigate a computer? All of these things give different people, different advantages.”

She remembers what her community looked like after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. “It was apocalyptic, with everything being flipped upside down,” she said. “I evacuated and came home to an unrecognizable place that was just soiled by floodwaters and the stench of like death and rotting things.”

Despite this devastation, both Monique and Christine said that after Katrina, Indigenous communities were largely left out of media coverage, which can make it hard for them to gather necessary aid.

“When we get slammed with a storm, what often happens is everybody’s like, ‘oh, New Orleans, New Orleans,’” Monique said. “All of the outlying coastal communities get totally left out and forgotten, and supplies go to New Orleans first and they never get out to the rural communities.

“We can endure a lot. But what we’ve inherited here at the end of the delta, being in this kind of sacrifice zone … it’s too much.”

To help with the Point-au-Chien’s recovery, you can donate to this PayPal. Information about donating to the United Houma Nation is here. Another Gulf is Possible is also raising funds for Indigenous communities, as well as other communities on the frontlines.

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