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Braving Home: A Storm Rider on a Sinking Island

Ninety miles south of New Orleans, Louisiana's only inhabited barrier island juts deep into the Gulf of Mexico. A narrow stretch of silt and sand, Grand Isle is home to about 1,400 people. Half the year, it is under the threat of hurricanes.

Longtime Grand Isle resident Ambrose Besson has learned to keep a sharp eye out for storms, but when they come, he stays put. With his fellow "storm riders," Besson hunkers down while the rest of the island evacuates. He even stayed during Betsy, the catastrophic 1965 hurricane that destroyed almost every structure on the island. Horses were "flowin' down the street" and burial vaults were "washed away," Besson tells journalist Jake Halpern in the last of a five-part series based on his book Braving Home.

Yet a larger threat looming over Grand Isle is not the occasional hurricane, but the gradual encroachment of the ocean. When the Mississippi River was channeled, it stopped depositing the silt needed to keep the barrier islands above sea level. In the last century alone, Louisiana's barrier islands have lost 40 percent of their surface area.

"They've been trying for years to keep the island from eroding," says Besson. "They've built dunes, breakwaters, rock groins… but sooner or later this island is going back to the water."

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