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'Nobody talks about this destruction'

My World's on Fire
'Nobody talks about this destruction'
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #33 • View online

Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!
I’m in the middle of a few projects right now, so this newsletter is kind of a peek into my reporter’s notebook – some insight into a topic that you’ll likely be seeing more of in the future on here. It’s one I’ve been thinking about since I attended a virtual workshop from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources in December. The focus was the Gulf of Mexico, and one panel touched on a controversial question in the disaster mitigation space: should we be rebuilding in disaster-prone areas or is it best to plan a “retreat”?
Journalist Christopher Flavelle wroteabout the increasing embrace of the latter by the federal government last year, explaining in the New York Times:
“The federal government has long paid to buy and demolish individual flood-damaged homes. What’s different is the move toward buyouts on a much larger scale — relocating greater numbers of people, and even whole neighborhoods, and ideally doing it even before a storm or flood strikes. Officials’ increasing acceptance of relocation, which is sometimes called managed retreat, represents a broad political and psychological shift for the United States.”
It’s a topic that’s been back in the news recently as the Biden administration has pledged more action on the mitigation front, particularly when it comes to issues heightened by climate change. So, I wanted to share an exchange from that workshop that helped inform the language I’m going to use when touching on this topic and those impacted by these policies.
For Patty Ferguson-Bohnee of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, retreat is already a reality in her home community. As she explained on the panel, many in her coastal Louisiana tribe have moved due to extensive land loss in the area. And her tribe is not the only one making these tough decisions in the state – according to its Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, Louisana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s.
In 2016, members of a neighboring tribe, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, received a federal grant to relocate. This, according to the New York Times, was “the first allocation of federal tax dollars to move an entire community struggling with the impacts of climate change.”  Headlines and newscasts dubbed the Isle de Jean Charles tribal community “climate refugees,”which Ferguson-Bohnee said was offensive and upsetting to tribal members.
As she put it: “‘Refugee’ has been a difficult term.”
Panelist Faye Matthews, Legal Policy Advisor and Senior Partnership Manager for the National Wildlife Federation, added that all of the hype around the term “climate refugees” erased some of the agency from the people in power whose choices over the years contributed to the land loss. She listed investments in oil exploration and development as one example. Both women also felt that the term conveyed a sense of “other” that could stoke discrimination or otherwise factor into the charged rhetoric around immigration in the U.S.
But when it comes to the question of what to call those who have moved due to these conditions, neither felt confident offering a specific term. While Ferguson-Bohnee was not a fan of the term “climate migrant,” calling it “charged,” Matthews believes it might be the best phrase to convey the urgency of this moment for now. Ferguson-Bohnee noted that both her tribe and the Isle de Jean Charles tribe have used the terms “resettlement” and “relocation,” but:
“When you say that, it doesn’t really give the same effect that a whole community has had to move,” she said. “We have had whole communities that already moved, and nobody talks about it, nobody mentions this destruction, and so is there a way to use a term that identifies the gravity?”
At the beginning of this newsletter, I mentioned this is a controversial topic, and it’s a complicated one on top of that. To help add some more context, I’ve included a few links below on some of these topics. As we talk more about these policies, I hope you’ll join me in conversations about the language we use and how that can frame our understanding of situations – you know what to do.
Read more:
As always…
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