Native Americans may lose their homes to rising waters on Louisiana island

Rising waters threaten Louisiana island

Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana — Tropical Storm Chantal, churning in the north Atlantic, is no threat to land at the moment. But it's expected to be an above-average hurricane season, which is bad news for Native Americans on a small island off the Louisiana coast. Rising waters are swallowing up their island, making them some of America's first climate refugees.

Shrimper Steve Billiot is a member of the Houma Nation. For almost two centuries, his people have fished, hunted and farmed on and around Isle de Jean Charles. Now, the land is in danger of being lost to climate change.

Rising sea levels and the intrusion of salt water from the Gulf of Mexico have destroyed much of the island's natural protective barrier, making it vulnerable to storm surge.

There's only one way on or off the island so when major storms blow through the area, the road gets washed out. Anyone who's decided to stay on the island and not evacuate will be trapped.

Even a relatively weak category one storm like Hurricane Barry, which hit in early July, can have devastating effects.

Chris Brene reluctantly evacuated the island before the storm.

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Chris Brene with Mireya Villarreal CBS News

"It is so much of my upbringing, so much of my identity from who I am to where I live," Brene said.

Soon, all he'll have left are memories of the island, which since 1955 has lost 98% of its landmass. Today, it sustains a shrinking population of fewer than 60 people.

"There's no way for us to know exactly when the island will be uninhabitable," said Pat Forbes, who runs a $48 million federally funded resettlement project.

The first of its kind project is designed to move the island's remaining inhabitants to higher ground, some 40 miles away.

"Nobody wants to leave the island. But they recognize for the most part that they're not going to be able to live there forever," Forbes said.

It's a reality Brene wrestles with every day.

"Once I make that decision, that's going to be my future," he said.

Brene and his neighbors will have to make that decision soon, as their beloved island succumbs to the rising sea.

  • Mireya Villarreal

    Mireya Villarreal is a CBS News correspondent.