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Down the Mississippi, a historic Black town fears the end. It's a warning for coastal Louisiana.

尝辞耻颈蝉颈补苍补’蝉 battle against land loss and sea-level rise has led to alarm over which parts of the state could actually vanish, and when. But the end for some communities may come long before the land beneath them disappears.

This is the second story in Louisiana 2050, an occasional series examining the uncertain future of our coast.

The house where Chadwick Encalade lives, far down the Mississippi River, in a community older than the United States, is more than 20 feet in the air. Hobbled by bad knees, he struggles to climb up and down the steps.

His homeowners’ insurance has risen to around $800 — per month. People in his ZIP code are facing the steepest flood insurance increases in the nation: a projected average of nearly 1,100%.

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The ferry crossing the river hasn’t run in months, and hurricanes have hit the area hard over recent decades. He has an elevator to help him and his wife get in and out of the house, but it’s not working, and Encalade can’t find a contractor willing to drive down to fix it.

He worries climate change will mean stronger storms and further troubles.

“We can clearly see the effects of it,” said Encalade, 56, who grew up across the street from his current home in the tiny, mostly African American community of Pointe a la Hache, squeezed along a narrow strip between the snaking Mississippi River and disappearing marsh.

The Marine Corps veteran, his white beard like a well-kept hedgerow, giving him the look of a sage, adds: “I worry about it. If anything happens, I probably wouldn’t rebuild the house the way that I have now.”

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Resident Chadwick Encalade walks past his home in Pointe a la Hache on Sept. 21. His house, across from where he grew up, is more than 20 feet in the air.?

尝辞耻颈蝉颈补苍补’蝉 battle against land loss and sea-level rise has led to alarm over which parts of the state could actually vanish, and when. But the end for some communities may come long before the land beneath them disappears.

Life may just become too hard and expensive to justify staying. It is already happening in some places along the coast.

'All my memories are there'

Pointe a la Hache, whose history dates back to at least the first half of the 18th century, is a shadow of what it once was, with a population of just 183 people. Located near the end of the road on the mighty river’s east bank, it is still technically the Plaquemines Parish seat, underscoring its former importance. But the community has faced a long list of human-caused and natural calamities over the last century, and signs that its days are numbered are everywhere.

Other parts of the coast are in similar situations. Take Cameron Parish, in 尝辞耻颈蝉颈补苍补’蝉 southwest. After repeated battering by hurricanes, its already sparse population has dropped by nearly half in two decades, to around 5,600. It is also among the coastal areas most threatened by erosion.

The numbers are telling elsewhere, too. Census estimates in 2022 showed three Louisiana parishes among the top five counties nationwide with the biggest percentage drops in population: Plaquemines, St. John the Baptist and Terrebonne. Much of it was attributable to Hurricane Ida the previous year.

While there has been discussion about how to deal with vulnerable communities, including whether to move them, the more likely scenario may be that they simply wither and die on their own.

In some areas, industry could take the place of people. Both Cameron and Plaquemines have pursued major liquefied natural gas plants, which are eligible for large tax breaks. In Cameron, parts of the coast previously known for fishing have been transformed into giant warrens of pipes and holding tanks to export energy.

The same natural gas contributes to climate change, which exacerbates the sea-level rise threatening 尝辞耻颈蝉颈补苍补’蝉 coast. At the same time, the plants — along with the investment and jobs they represent — provide local officials with an argument for why the nation should invest in protecting such vulnerable locations.

Outdoor tourism has also been attempted — and in some cases illustrates population shifts. The Pecan Island School along the coast in Vermilion Parish southwest of Lafayette was closed after 2005’s Hurricane Rita and has been transformed into a hunting lodge.

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Stairs stand next to mobile homes in Pointe a la Hache on Nov. 7.

Encalade’s daughter, Chase, 27, grew up in Pointe a la Hache, fishing with her cousins and hitting golf balls with her father into the woods next to their house. She later went to college in Memphis on a golf scholarship and attended graduate school in Little Rock, where she currently lives as a project director for a rural health program.

She returns to visit regularly but says it would be tough for a young and ambitious person to remain. She says she can envision Pointe a la Hache disappearing in her lifetime, and “that’s something very scary to think about because all my memories are there.”

“There are no opportunities for young professionals,” she said during a recent visit back as she sat with her father at her aunt’s corner grocery and lunch counter, DJ’s One Stop — the only shop in the community.

“If you don't want to work for the ferry, if you don't want to work at the prison, if you don't want to work for the parish itself, there's nothing for you down here.”

An early boom, and a slow decline

Pointe a la Hache is perched on the ridge next to the river, just before the spot where the levees keeping the Mississippi in place reach their end. Since its earliest days, first inhabited by Native Americans, then French explorers, it has been buffeted and battered by hurricanes, riverbank breaches and flooding. Its name means Ax Point, and various theories abound for its origins.

A boarded-up and deteriorating Creole-style raised cottage in the center of town, its covered porch framed by decorative railings, serves as a touchstone to a faded past. The former Harlem Plantation House, badly in need of repair, sits just upriver of the community, a testament to both the region’s slave-driven and architectural history.

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The Harlem Plantation House stands on La. 39 in Plaquemines Parish on Nov. 7.

The name was depicted on maps as early as 1732, says Rod Lincoln, Plaquemines Parish’s historian. It was in a strategic spot south of New Orleans and the farthest place reachable by road, he said.

Its population grew in the 19th century, and about a quarter of its inhabitants in 1850 were born outside of the U.S., according to Lincoln. Slavic people from Eastern Europe immigrated to the area and worked as fishermen, among other jobs. By the late 19th century, Pointe a la Hache was said to have around 600 residents.

Glimpses can be seen in old pictures and written descriptions. A 1915 photo shows a hotel along its riverfront, across from the old courthouse and its clock tower. Wooden fences and Creole cottages line the road.

In the early 1900s, St. Thomas Church was led by a French priest who would fire off cannons in salute when ships from his country approached, Lincoln wrote in an article on the town’s history. The priest, the Rev. John Girault, was also renowned for his commitment during floods and epidemics, he said. He would travel the parish by boat, also named “The St. Thomas,” a plaque on the church wall says.

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St. Thomas Church and the water tower photographed in Pointe a la Hache on Nov. 7.

Hurricanes and the river breaking its banks have led to repeated tragedy, with one newspaper article from 1880 describing a “dangerous break at Pointe a la Hache … the river seems determined not to be kept within bounds.” A list of hurricanes, particularly Betsy and Katrina, hit the community hard.

When Katrina hit in 2005, Encalade’s house was about 10 feet off the ground. Returning to inspect the damage, he found the second floor had 4 feet of marsh grass inside. His boat trailer was sticking through the roof. The boat itself, which had been tied off, was beaten up from banging against the roof’s rafters.

Despite the community’s vulnerable location, Encalade says it was the first time in his lifetime that the back levees keeping out waters from the Breton Sound were overtopped.

Katrina is part of a series of recent misfortunes the town has endured. Some residents also blame what they see as neglect they believe would not have occurred if the community were majority White. Even within Louisiana, Plaquemines has a particularly ugly racist past, especially under local political boss Leander Perez’s regime in the mid-20th century.

Lincoln says that Pointe a la Hache’s decline started when many more White families lived there. He calls it a matter of “rich versus poor, powerful versus powerless.”

He points in particular to the 1926 opening of the Bohemia Spillway just downriver, aimed at easing flooding concerns in New Orleans, as one turning point, since it resulted in the buyout of land and homes there.

The construction of the levees after the epic 1927 Mississippi River flood also cut off the sediment that had periodically nourished the soil, resulting in land loss, like many other locations along the Louisiana coast.

'One-horse town' on the Mississippi River?

Economic pressures have also taken a toll.

Pointe a la Hache was formerly home to a cadre of Black oystermen. But the 2010 BP oil spill — along with a break in the banks of the Mississippi now known as Mardi Gras Pass, which has freshened the area’s waters — were final blows to their businesses, says Byron Encalade, Chadwick’s cousin, who once ran a commercial seafood business there.

Don Beshel, whose family has operated a boat launch in Pointe a la Hache since 1972, says it is now struggling to get by. The fresh water has shut down oystering and sharply reduced recreational fishing from there. He keeps hoping the state will close the pass, but coastal advocates favor keeping it since it is building land in a state fast losing it.

Beshel’s family operated a furniture factory in the area for decades, at one time employing around 100 people, but cheap imports forced it to close in 2002, he says. Still, he’s not ready to give up. He notes that while the population of Pointe a la Hache is tiny, other locales along the river also consider themselves part of its wider community.

“It's a one-horse town now, so, you know, it's seen better days,” said Beshel, 66. “But that doesn't necessarily say it's going to be over.”

Byron Encalade isn’t as hopeful.

“I don’t believe the next generation will be able to sustain themselves there,” said the 69-year-old, who says racial discrimination over the years also made it difficult for him to operate.

Consider these numbers as one example: Census figures list Pointe a la Hache’s annual median income at less than $12,000. Typical premiums for flood insurance alone — to say nothing of homeowners’ insurance — are projected to eventually rise to more than $8,000 per year, according to FEMA data.

111923 Plaquemines land loss map

More broadly, Plaquemines Parish could lose up to another 137 square miles of land by 2050, depending on various scenarios — about a fifth of what exists today, state data shows. Flood depths could be in the range of 25 feet during 100-year storms in certain areas by that time, only one generation into the future.

Projections then become far more severe. More than 300 square miles could be lost over the next half-century.

Plaquemines Parish officials did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Love it here’ in?Pointe a la Hache

The strictly practical view of the changes afoot along the coast may be to conclude that a natural migration is in order. But to do so may also mean overlooking the varying histories and cultures of south Louisiana, where generations have called places like Pointe a la Hache home.

It is clear the risks are high and becoming worse as climate change fuels sea-level rise and stronger hurricanes. But finding the money to either voluntarily move communities or build them reasonable protections may turn out to be impossible.

Liz Skilton, director of public history at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and an editor of a book on disasters, notes the state’s long record of populations moving “up the bayou” after storms or other catastrophes. But she says research on how to address the issue at a time of climate change is still developing.

Shrinking parishes will face the question of whether to continue to pay to provide costly services to areas where few live. The state may eventually have to decide whether to consolidate parts of the coast.

“If the state is unable to invest in moving populations together, maybe they can invest in ways to help that population as it's displaced to different areas maintain an identity that is collective,” Skilton said.

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The end of the levee system on the east side of the Mississippi River in Plaquemines Parish, just below Pointe a la Hache, on Nov. 7.

“When we look at mass migration in history, we can definitely see its impact on the splitting of culture: Native American populations forcibly displaced to different areas around the country, even Black migration during the Great Depression.”

In the years after his service in the Marine Corps, Encalade worked at the Alliance Refinery across the river near Belle Chasse, as many Plaquemines residents over the years have done. But he was among those laid off when Phillips 66 decided to effectively shutter the facility after Hurricane Ida flooded it.

He also serves as a justice of the peace, handling everything from marrying couples to notarizing paperwork and mediating fights — often at his house.

He remembers when he would take the ferry to work for free. A fee of $1 was put into effect in 2016, with the parish saying its ferries at both Belle Chasse and Pointe a la Hache were too costly to run. There has been talk over the years of consolidating the two lines.

The ferry has been shut since January due to the poor condition of its landings, again feeding suspicions from residents in Pointe a la Hache that they are being abandoned. But the Port of Plaquemines announced plans over the summer to restore it and restart service in 2025. It is seeking to carry out temporary repairs in the meantime with the hopes of restoring service within the next year.

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The ferry, seen from Pointe a la Hache, parks in Port Sulphur on Nov. 15. Many residents of Pointe a la Hache and people who worked in nearby areas relied on the ferry, which is no longer in operation. People who wish to cross the Mississippi River must drive to Belle Chasse, about 27 miles up the river.?

Without it, Pointe a la Hache residents must either use the Scarsdale-Belle Chasse ferry nearly 30 miles away, the Chalmette ferry about 40 miles upriver or drive through New Orleans to cross the river.

On a recent morning, Encalade and his daughter walked the grounds of the old parish courthouse, burnt by an arsonist in 2002. Pointe a la Hache residents pushed hard for it to be rebuilt and fought off a bid to move it to Belle Chasse, now the parish’s main population center. A new courthouse was eventually constructed, with the brick fa?ade of the former historic building kept in place.

“Our fight was knowing that if the courthouse didn't come back, then what's next?” Encalade said near the fa?ade and the gnarled trunk of a sprawling oak, across the road from the levee and the river flowing behind it. “If the parish officials don't have to come down here, then what else are we going to lose out on? What else will they strip away from us because we don't have the people?”

Encalade accepts that his daughter would find it difficult to work and build a life in Pointe a la Hache. But remaining in the place where his family history is rooted, where he feels at home in the world, is something he will not give up easily.

“I love it here, man,” he says. “It’s peaceful. For me, it’s where I’m comfortable being. So if there’s any possibility of staying here, I would love to.”

Email Mike Smith at msmith@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter, @MikeJSmith504.

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