'A new day': Isle de Jean Charles residents get keys to new homes on higher ground

The first group of residents from Isle de Jean Charles received the keys to their new homes Wednesday as part of a year-long program to relocate those who want to leave the small island community in southern Terrebonne to escape flooding and storms.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state officials met with a dozen homeowners as they worked with attorneys to sign the papers to take ownership of the newly built homes in the New Isle neighborhood of Schriever.

“Today is a new day for the proud residents of Isle de Jean Charles as they take ownership of their new homes in a safer and more resilient community,” Edwards said.

Isle de Jean Charles, a community of mostly low-income Native Americans with ties to the island that span generations, once encompassed more than 22,000 acres. It has dwindled to 320 acres as Gulf of Mexico storms, erosion, sinking land and rising seas fueled by climate change have taken a toll.

The state received a $48.3 million federal grant in 2016 to resettle current and former residents, with $11.7 million used to purchase the 515-acre property, on higher ground about 40 miles north of the island.

The plan calls for current island residents or those who moved away after Hurricane Isaac in 2012 to have houses built for them using the grant money. Those who lived on the island but moved away before Isaac will get lots on which they can build their own homes.

Thirty-seven of the island's 42 households have decided to move to New Isle, with one choosing to resettle independently by purchasing a Louisiana home in a non-flood zone with the state’s assistance. That accounts for more than 90% of the remaining permanent island residents. Relocated residents are able to retain ownership of their property on the island.

An extra 22 lots will be given out in New Isle, but former island residents will have to pay to build their own homes on them.

The next group will get the keys to their homes in September, state officials said. By year's end, New Isle will have 96 residents.

Earlier reporting:As Gulf swallows Louisiana island, displaced tribe fears the future

More:Why is Isle de Jean Charles disappearing? A timeline of land loss

Many among of the new homeowners said emotions are bittersweet – they are sad to leave their island homes but happy to have a new place to go.

Chris Brunet, for instance, said this is the first time he has ever moved or lived someplace other than the island. He has been living in a camper since Hurricane Ida damaged his home nearly a year ago, and Wednesday he received the keys to his house on Pelican Lane in the New Isle subdivision.

Brunet said the home he grew up in wasn't fancy, and he appreciates the simple design of the one he is receiving. So far, it's nice, but he said he needs to settle in before he can be sure because his family has lived for five generations on Isle de Jean Charles, and "now I find myself over here."

"I really don't know. Right now, the best I can tell you is this is just a house," Brunet said. "It'll be a while before it's home."

His nephew, Howard Brunet, said the move is a big change. He was used to being able to take out his pirogue and go fishing within walking distance. He likes that the architects included a pond and bayou in the subdivision's design and he hopes to shoot some ducks during hunting season. But to him, it's more like living in the city than what he's used to.

Marlene Autin grew up and lived on the island for 56 years. She showed off her three-bedroom home on Pelican Lane with pride.

She has been living in a rental home in Houma since Ida lifted her house and tossed it into the road.

Autin's new home has a window and door that reveal a view of the bayou, and she's thinking about planting a garden just outside. She said she likes the new house, but no matter how nice, it's not the same as the home she grew up in.

"It'll have to do," she said.

Public officials, including Edwards, acknowledged the transition has been difficult. And they noted that others are watching as climate change and rising seas threaten to inundate coastal communities across the globe.

"To understand how a once sprawling and vibrant community of thousands of acres has dwindled to little more than a few hundred is to understand the real consequences of climate change," Edwards said. "The residents of Isle de Jean Charles did not want to leave their island; on the contrary, the island left them. They deserved and needed help, which is why our state invested years of planning, outreach, design and construction into the New Isle resettlement community. This is a nationally and internationally observed and eagerly awaited event for us all."

This article originally appeared on The Courier: Isle de Jean Charles residents begin moving in to new homes