Wisconsin Reservation Offers A Climate Success Story And A Warning Climate change is causing more severe flooding around the country, and a disproportionate number of Native American communities are on the front lines.

Wisconsin Reservation Offers A Climate Success Story And A Warning

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Now to the story of residents of a flooded town who had to pick up and move. That decision has caught the attention of scientists concerned with climate change. NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Lunch has just wrapped up at the Bad River Elder Center in northern Wisconsin.

STAR AMES: So my name is Star Ames...

HERSHER: Can I ask how old you are?



AMES: (Laughter) I'm old enough to remember the flood.

HERSHER: The flood was in 1960. Star was in elementary school.

AMES: Every place that we thought was high enough, the water kept coming up. The streets in the village were underwater. And my dad went from house to house in a boat.

HERSHER: In photos, people are hanging out of second-story windows. After that flood, Star's dad, who was the tribal chairman at the time, wanted to move the entire town to higher ground. He got the federal government to build some rental houses a few miles away. Initially it was meant to be temporary to help people whose homes had been destroyed.

AMES: Then everyone was real excited because the families that seriously needed places to rent were finally going to get them. We didn't have anyplace else here for them to live.

HERSHER: But over the next three decades, more and more people left the village. Climate change started to cause more frequent and severe storms. The village became Old Odanah, and the higher ground was called New Odanah. Today basically the entire town has moved. And that has caught the eye of a scientist.

NICHOLAS PINTER: Well, this was a voyage of discovery for us. Odanah was the great unknown relocation.

HERSHER: Nicholas Pinter studies how and why people move after big floods. And Odanah is a pretty interesting example because what happened here - floods chasing a whole town onto higher ground - is projected to happen in other places as the effects of climate change get more severe.

PINTER: We have trends towards spiraling flood damages over time.

HERSHER: Pinter's first step as a researcher is pretty basic - count all the buildings in New and Old Odanah and make a map.

PINTER: So do you have to put in a numerical value into the field?

JAMES REES: I changed it to decimals.

HERSHER: His student, James Rees, is helping.

REES: First-floor elevation. So we just estimate that. Like, 2 feet maybe here.

HERSHER: Every foot matters when it comes to flooding. In 2016, a huge rainstorm put Old Odanah under 8 feet or more of water. Luckily, almost everyone had already moved by then. Pinter and Rees will use this new map to estimate how much money that saved.

PINTER: I don't want to tell them what their narrative is. But from an outside perspective, you had a relocation very well-timed ahead. It's usually right after the major flood. Here the real monster in terms of quantity of water came through after the relocation.

HERSHER: Basically he says Odanah's relocation is a success story. The town got out ahead of climate change and saved itself. Other flood-prone towns can learn from that. But that's not how it feels to some people here. Tribal historian Edith Leoso flips through photos of Old Odanah at her office.

EDITH LEOSO: OK. So here's a photo of Morrison's clothing store, Odanah Opera House.

HERSHER: Today those buildings are gone. It's all forest. Leoso says it's important to understand how the relocation felt to some people in town. It starts with the long history of the U.S. government forcing American Indians to leave their land even in the recent past.

LEOSO: I'm a product of relocation era - the Indian Relocation Act.

HERSHER: Leoso and her family were among the thousands of people pushed to leave reservations and move to cities in the '50s and '60s. Entire tribes dissolved. She sees the federally assisted move from Old to New Odanah as the latest insult to her culture.

LEOSO: It's just being forced to move. That's what - it's a - it was a forced relocation essentially. It wasn't something that we wanted to do.

HERSHER: Pinter, the scientist, says the side-by-side economic success and apparent cultural failure of the Odanah relocation is a wake-up call for the federal government. Native communities are disproportionately affected by climate-related flooding in part because of that very same history of pushing native peoples onto marginal land. Right now the federal government is working on plans to move native towns in Alaska, Louisiana and elsewhere.

PINTER: So we've learned the last couple days there are unique challenges in a Native American community. And given that some of the headline relocation sites are Native American communities right now, they absolutely should be visiting Odanah and talking to the people here.

HERSHER: And scientists have a lot to learn from Odanah as well. Pinter says there's currently no good record of American towns and neighborhoods that have relocated out of flood plains. He says the state government didn't even know that Odanah had relocated, let alone why. He argues this is a moment for researchers to get serious about studying places like this.

PINTER: The U.S. is right now spending tens of millions and may in the future be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on community relocation. They should be looking to the lessons of history and not letting important chapters in that whole history like Odanah just disappear.

HERSHER: Pinter plans to publish the results of his study in the coming months. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.


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