The Atakapa-Ishak: Centuries of Survival

The Atakapa-Ishak people are a Native American tribe settled in the Grand Bayou region of Louisiana. The tribe’s core values are tradition and family, which helped them avoid the terrible toll of Hurricane Katrina that devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005. Living in the isolated Plaquemines Parish, tribe member Rosina Phillippe believes her people have been able to survive in a hurricane-prone area because of their adherence to putting life first; practicing safe harbor mooring; and allowing marshes to buffer the effects of a storm surge.

”We are a part of the coastal community. We know how to live there, how to survive there,” says Rosina. “We are an integral part of the environment, and we remain there to this day.”

The Ishaks are mindful that preserving life is a priority and that material possessions, unlike people, can be replaced. When they were warned that Hurricane Katrina would make landfall, they worked together to organize the village and ensure everyone’s safety. “It is a misconception that our people do not evacuate when hurricanes come on land,” says Rosina. “We work as a community to pack up and move to our boats.”

When a severe storm approaches their village, the Ishak people go from home to home to ensure that every member of their community moves to the harbor and boards the fishing boats. As part of their strategy, they secure their boats in the center of the narrow canal with several lines tied to trees and pilings on shore (called cross-tying) to ensure a safe mooring. Rosina and her people survived Hurricane Katrina by riding out the storm in their boats.

The structures in their village, however, did not survive the storm. Three years after the hurricane, Rosina says that not one building has been rebuilt. “This has to do with the Ishak community being considered ‘at risk.’”

Any community built outside of the levees is considered to be an at-risk community. As part of the Road Home program, managed by ICF International, communities at risk have to undergo an extensive building review, which includes height and architectural mandates and floor board inspections. The Road Home program gave this classification to the Ishak village despite their demonstrated ability to protect themselves against severe storms throughout history. The Ishak community has never suffered a casualty from a hurricane-related event.

Without federally mandated policies, the Ishak people wouldn’t be eligible for any federal funds to help rebuild their community. “There is still so much left to be done,” says Rosina. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is focused on other regions of the Gulf Coast, while here work remains unfinished.”

Rosina is concerned that the post-Katrina rebuilding process is a repeat of past mistakes. The Louisiana authorities continue to create deeper levees and cut more canals, while marsh land, the best defense against severe storms and residual flooding, remains underutilized and unprotected.

Rosina also feels her people are a marginalized community and that it is important to consider how a culture lives and works before the government sends out blanket mandates. “It is important to work with the community and the people before deciding which communities are beyond repair,” she says. “Our culture values life over property. Our traditions have been working for hundreds of years.”