CHAUVIN, La. (BRPROUD) — In southern Terrebonne Parish, along the sparkling bayous and the salty air of the marshes of the Gulf of Mexico, reside small state-recognized Native American tribes.

The Grand Caillou Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, and Jean Charles Choctaw Nation have been an integral part of southeast Louisiana for hundreds of years. Following the devastation of Hurricane Ida, only about 75% of the Grand Caillou Dulac Band have returned to their homes. The Chief isn’t sure how many will be able to fully rebuild.

On Aug. 29, 2021, Hurricane Ida made landfall at Port Fourchon. The Category 4 hurricane traveled up the Terrebonne and Lafourche parish line, leaving destruction in its path. Winds reached 150 mph which blasted houses apart all across the land.

”It was definitely nothing I had ever seen before firsthand. You know, we’re used to hurricanes, but I had never seen anything as catastrophic,” Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar said.

Chief Parfait-Dardar leads the Grand Caillou Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. There are about a thousand people in her tribe that live in the remote reaches of Terrebonne Parish that are the gateway to the Gulf – right on the frontlines of Ida’s path.

“We weren’t the only ones, it was all over the community. You know, I was just heartbroken and terrified,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said.

After Hurricanes Laura and Delta slammed the southwest corner of the state in 2020 — and Hurricane Ida hitting the southeast just a year later — the tribes are looking to the state to have a pre-disaster plan in place for their community. They said so many things were barriers after Ida that could have been prevented.

“We’re highly concerned that if we get hit with another hurricane this storm season, you know, what are people going to do?” Chief Parfait-Dardar asked.

On March 5, Chief Dardar along with Alessandra Jerrolleman, an assistant professor in Jacksonville State’s Emergency Management Department, sent a letter to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP). The letter detailed the extensive challenges the tribal members faced in the days after the storm and are still faced with over seven months later.

The key challenges and their recommendations are:

1. Delayed and too little temporary on-site housing post-disaster

Recommendation: The state might allocate annual funding and be prepared to deploy trailers to remote tribal communities.

2. Tribes unable to access skilled labor for rebuilding

Recommendation: Create an exemption process that permits skilled tribal members to rebuild their own homes and those of other tribal members with the supervision of a licensed contractor.

3. Lack of access to building materials

Recommendation: Contract with suppliers to ensure sufficient access to building materials for remote tribal communities at a reduced cost.

4. Delays in restoration of power and utilities

Recommendation: Create a pre-disaster, post-disaster recovery plan to address shortcomings in restoration of utilities.

5. Affordability

Recommendation: Work with local tax assessors to create exemptions for low-income families whose property values are rising above the threshold due to rebuilding.

6. Delays in the provision of governmental assistance

Recommendation: Acknowledge tribal sovereignty and create government-to-government communication mechanisms.

“We need to take action now. Things need to be pre-planned,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said. “We need to have a contractor in place prior to an event and have things working much more smoothly post-disaster, you know, and also, we really need to be focusing on investing in resilient housing.”

Housing is the crux of the issue. Thousands of homes were destroyed in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes after Ida. People were living in tents or the rubble of what was their home for weeks until they could get into temporary housing. 

For the first time, FEMA granted permission to GOHSEP to create their own trailer program to help speed up the process. But getting in contact with the state or FEMA was nearly impossible as phone and internet services were down for weeks in that part of the state.

“We’re pleased with the ability of our program to have met the need as quickly as we could. There certainly are lessons to be learned and to get better,” said Casey Tingle, director of GOHSEP.

Jerolleman said it is frustrating from an emergency management perspective because after each storm temporary housing is always a challenge and hard for the average person to access. For the tribe members who live in the remote reaches of the parish, it is often too far of a drive to find a hotel room if any are available when their house is not safe to stay in. 

”Those of us that work in emergency management and study emergency management get this profound and deeply sad sense of déjà vu because you almost know what’s going to happen,” Jerolleman said. “You know you’re going to see displacement, you’re going to see people really struggling. And some of that struggle doesn’t have to happen.”

The objective of the letter is to get the state to have a temporary housing plan in place nearby and ready before a storm hits to help with the rollout after it passes, should a storm strike a similar location. 

“But I think it’s incumbent upon the communities, the parish, and the state to come up with some preliminary plans. We know that if this community is here and this area is hit hard, it’s projected to make landfall here; we could start pre-staged again working with these feasible, predisposed resources and plans to start enacting it much sooner,” State Rep. Jerome Zeringue said.

They also hope to work with GOHSEP to assist in getting skilled contractors into the community to help rebuild. With the amount of widespread damage, Chief Dardar said many are unwilling to make the long drive out. She offered a contractor $200 extra just to come give an estimate for her home and was still denied. She and her husband ended up having to rebuild their home on their own, but with the aging population of the tribe, it is not a viable option for everyone.

“If you have a blue tarp on your roof, that means your roof is not repaired, so we tend to be stuck until we can get those necessary repairs so we can’t get back into being fully functioning citizens again until our lives are back in order,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said.

With being a state-recognized only tribe, they have hit a snag in their request. While they are recognized as a tribe within Louisiana they are not granted the same benefits as a federally recognized tribe. Namely, having a government-to-government relationship with the state they reside in. It also does not require that a parish or state have a specific line of action for the tribe in emergencies.

In their request and a petition that has been circulating, it asks the state to recognize that sovereignty and establish a line of contact with the state government. 

”We support the recognition of the Indian tribe down there,” State Rep. Zeringue said. “…if it helps them in both getting the resources from the federal government and the state, I think it’s in their best interest to continue to do that.”

Tingle and Earl Eues, director of the Terrebonne Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, both said they would not prioritize the tribe over any other group within the community and they would be treated the same as everyone else. 

“We look at them as a partner and an advocate and don’t necessarily recreate the wheel in terms of what that looks like but we’re going to work with them as a partner just like we would anyone else,” Tingle said.

Eues went on to say Terrebonne already has an emergency plan in place that covers everyone in the parish. GOHSEP spokesman Mike Steele stated they only get involved after a disaster if the parish gets overwhelmed, such as in a case with widespread damage like Hurricane Ida. It is a process that was laid out in the creation of GOHSEP. Steele said the tribes should work with their parish to make any updates to the emergency plan.

Some lawmakers representing Terrebonne Parish don’t agree with that procedure.

“This complete lack of coordination happens that way. So the ground-up approach, to me, I think is problematic. I think you need a contingency about those things,” State Rep. Tanner Magee said.

When asked if they had received the note, the governor’s office released this statement:

“The letter is part of an ongoing and larger conversation between the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness and tribal leaders about improving accessibility to resources necessary for the recovery process.  It is not something that has reached the governor’s desk. GOHSEP has worked very closely to support all citizens in that area including providing several trainings (prior to Hurricane Ida) with the tribal communities to share the emergency management cycle and connection to the parish GOHSEP as they fall under their parish plans. Additional outreach and support was provided directly to the tribal communities in Terrebonne to make sure they have access to all available resources. GOHSEP is committed to working with the leaders to address the challenges that they and the parishes where they are located continue to deal with and find effective solutions to help with the restoration of their communities,”

Shauna Sanford, a spokeswoman from Governor John Bel Edwards’ office

Rep. Magee and Rep. Zeringue said the tribes should be allowed to have a seat at the table, and that there should be some recognition of how the tribes are special communities with unique needs. They’re also working with the state to create a large-scale plan to deal with the devastation after these strong storms that are expected to continue to return.

”I think we’re looking at it the wrong way. I think it’s a priority to the communities who live in the most sensitive area of the parish and state,” Rep. Magee said. “I think we need to look into that and show both the sensitivity to the realization that they are on the front lines of this.”

There have been resolutions and executive orders under Gov. Bobby Jindal and further back which created this kind of communication between the tribes and the government. But they have since expired or are no longer followed.

“They already have a built-in network. They know everybody in the community,” Rep. Magee said.

Chief Parfait-Dardar said there had been conversations with the state and parish in the past about recovery, but they had fallen off. They felt a letter to bring attention would help.

After receiving the letter and calls, Tingle said GOHSEP and the tribe had a productive visit this week and began the conversation on how to start using them as a partner in the community. He recognizes the trust needed between a tribe and the state. He plans to use the Chief and other tribal leaders as resources to get the critical information out to the members in all corners of the state.

She worries that with the strong storms bearing down without enough time and resources to recover, it will force the tribe and surrounding communities to have to leave their homes for good.

“We’ve been here for hundreds of years, hundreds of years. This is our home. You know, quite frankly, I don’t know how to be anywhere else, just like our people don’t know how to be anywhere else. We are beautiful. We are unique. We have wonderful talents and skills,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said. “And we actually provide a very necessary resource to not just the state, but the world. You know, we’re traditional harvesters. And to me, it’s the best place in the world that you could be.”

The state has already invested millions of dollars in relocating the Isle De Jean Charles residents farther inland due to erosion making the land disappear, just a few miles farther south than Chief Parfait-Dardar’s tribe. Governor Edwards has called them the first climate change refugees.

“These people are going to move away. They have no other choice,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said. 

Tingle said it will be worth it to hear out the tribe to see what their needs are. The tribe is working with lawmakers to introduce legislation to grant them the sovereignty recognition they are seeking, but it has not been introduced as of yet. They hope to open a line of dialogue with GOHSEP so the next storm doesn’t blindside them.

“It’s very heartbreaking because as you lose people, you lose your community and as you lose your community, you lose your identity,” Chief Parfait-Dardar said.