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Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe responds to $160M barrier island project

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The Louisiana state government announced three coastal protection barrier island projects that, combined, will cost $160 million to execute, according to a state news release.

“Approximately 9.2 million cubic yards of sand will be dredged from the Gulf of Mexico to create 1,110 acres of beach, dune, and marsh habitat on portions of Trinity-East Island, Timbalier Island, and the West Belle Pass Headland,” the news release reads.

Gov. John Bel Edwards commented on the project in the news release, pointing out the role wetlands play in protecting coastal communities.

“Sustaining our barrier islands is a vital component of coastal protection,” Edwards said, according to the news release. “They protect interior wetland systems. They stand in front of our protection systems. And they are positioned in front of our communities. Each of these layers must work together to provide holistic storm protection.”

One of those coastal communities in need of wetland protection is the Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish, an island that has experienced 98% land loss since the 1950s and is the home of the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Native Americans.

Chantel Comardelle, the tribal executive secretary of the Isle de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, said she thinks the barrier island projects are an improvement, but feels the money would have been better spent in different areas.

“I think it’s great for the parish,” Comardelle said. “I think it’s great to do those projects, but I also wish they would do more of those projects on the inside of a community as well. If they can spend $160 million on sand that will probably wash out for the next hurricane, they could have spent that money on improvement of the island and the levee system.”

According to the state news release, the project is being exclusively funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and settlements from the BP oil spill of 2010.

“As part of plea agreements approved by a U.S. District Court, NFWF is charged with administering more than $2.5 billion from BP and Transocean to fund projects benefiting the natural resources of the Gulf Coast impacted by the spill,” the news release reads.

Comardelle also said the money could have gone toward further aid for other coastal communities and wetland preservation.

“I think that they could have used that money for just fixing some of the wetlands and the different things closer to the coastline and allowing more fresh water to flow into the wetlands before they (work on) the outside,” Comardelle said.

According to Comardelle, there is a ring levee surrounding the Isle de Jean Charles that protects the inner island from further land loss, but the community still experiences severe flooding during storms.

“We did get some flooding from Hurricane Barry that came through. We had about 3 feet of water, between 3 and 4 feet of water, on the island itself that topped the ring levee,” Comardelle said. “We had about four or five homes flooded, so we helped get those folks back into their homes.”

Comardelle said the main concerns of the tribe include the ring levee and the single access road that leads to the island from mainland Terrebonne Parish.

“As long as the levee stays in place and the road is passable, there’s not much else we can do other than maybe look at some things to protect the levee and protect the roadside,” Comardelle said.

According to Comardelle, since the state government decided to make the federally-funded Isle de Jean Charles resettlement site less tribe-specific, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe has shifted focus to preserving their own island and culture, including digital archiving of oral histories and a planned museum in Houma.

“It’s our main focus, since things with the state aren’t moving in the direction that the tribe would want,” Comardelle said. “We’re just going to preserve our place as much as we can, from history to physical location to our lifeways and traditions.”

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