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For ‘Climate Relocation,’ the Dollar Math Is Hardly Settled

By James Varney, RealClearInvestigations

ISLE de JEAN CHARLES, La. – The Gulf of Mexico has been closing in on Rita Falgout’s native soil for all of her 81 years. Now the island that has been her home is just a thin spit of land – the last 320 of what was once 22,000 acres being chewed away by the surrounding waters.

Falgout says it may finally be time to hit the road — if the road is passable.  The two-mile asphalt ribbon that connects the island to the mainland (above) is sometimes swamped during high tide and always underwater during big storms.

“I’d rather move,” said Falgout, who lives with her husband of more than 60 years, Roosevelt, in a house that rises on creosote-soaked poles above flowering cactus and partially disassembled lawn mowers. “They told us if we want to stay here, we’re on our own. They want us to go to Blue Bayou. It’s a nice place.”

Those offering this new home to Falgout are government officials. Flush with a $48.3 million federal grant, the state has offered to cover relocation costs for the Falgouts and the roughly 100 other residents of Isle de Jean Charles. Their plight, along with those who live in small coastal villages in Alaska and Washington state, has received wide attention in stories casting them as the first American victims of climate change.

What has received less notice is the price tag attached to the efforts. While the final cost in Louisiana remains unknown, already the price for moving the residents, who occupy 30 or so largely ramshackle houses on the island, works out to at least $500,000 per person.

If government’s response to Isle de Jean is a dress rehearsal for how it will respond in the years ahead to the rising sea levels predicted by those alarmed by climate change, the costs will be daunting, even prohibitive. Current global warming models predict that by 2100, between 4 million and 13 million Americans could be displaced by rising sea levels, according to the U.S. Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Going from the most optimistic to the most alarming scenario, the relocation bill for those people, at half a million dollars per person, would come to between $2 trillion to $6.5 trillion.

“If the costs are going to be in the trillions, then it will come down to policy decisions about what you’re able to do,” said Alexander S. Kolker of Tulane University’s Earth and Environmental Studies department. “I don’t think we have the money in hand to do that.”

And those trillions would just go to relocating people. The cost of moving or replacing major infrastructure, including ports and industrial facilities, may be incalculable, Kolker noted.

“I can’t see what the number would be, but it has to be colossal,” he said, before offering a hypothetical: “Just look at New Jersey and all the infrastructure around Newark. Refineries? How do you move those? Do they have to be rebuilt?”

Whether almost $50 million will be enough for Isle de Jean Charles’ wholesale relocation isn’t clear. Louisiana officials have released neither an overall budget for the relocation nor details of the contract they signed with a master planner in September, more than a year and a half after the Department of Housing and Urban Development made the grant.