This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on March 29, 2018. Alexandra Cohen, Talia Fox, and Jojanneke Spoor contributed to the production of this story.
Jayden Foytlin is a 14 year old from Rayne, Louisiana, an indigenous climate activist, and a plaintiff in the case, Juliana v. United States. This is her story:
“My name is Jayden Foytlin and I’m from Rayne, a small town in South Louisiana. In August of 2016, we had a flood and my house still hasn’t recovered from it.
I was really young when we moved here. We had lived in a really small house before, so when we moved into this house, it was bigger and so cool. I have three brothers and three sisters. We have a field next to our house and there was a treehouse in the field that we used to go and play in. I remember one time in the field, we found a place with a lot of flowers. It was very green and had long grass. My sister really likes photography, so we went into the field and acted like models. My littlest brother used to always make me play hide-and-see in the dark at midnight. He is a goofy kid. My whole family is a bunch of extroverts so it’s kind of loud in the house.
In mid-August of 2016, 20-30 inches of rain fell over several days resulting in flooding on numerous streams and rivers in Louisiana. At least 13 people died (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)).
Approximately 140,000 homes were damaged during the floods in Louisiana. The cost of the damages is estimated to be $10 billion. It was the worst flooding event in the United States since Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (NOAA).
In the Southeast United States, extreme daily rainfall events increased 27% between 1958 to 2012 (National Climate Assessment).
It’s still kind of like that now, but it’s harder because we’re trying to raise enough money to fix our house. It’s more tense than it was before the flood happened. I sometimes worry that if I wake up in the middle of the night, there’s going to be water up to my knee. That’s something we have to worry about now because it actually happened. Now when there’s rain, we all just freak out.
The night the flooding happened, I wasn’t the person who noticed. I was asleep because it was midnight. I have a sister who’s a year older than me and stays up. She was on her computer when she noticed flood water coming under her door. She moved her electronics then woke up my oldest sister. When there’s rain, it goes downwards to the back of the house. My room is at the back of the house and it got worse back there because the house isn’t level.
Most of the water was coming through my room, but I didn’t know. My sister pounded on my door. At first, I thought I was dreaming. I put my foot down on the floor and the water was up to my ankles. When I opened the door, my sister said, ‘do you not understand the situation?’ She didn’t think I was taking it seriously. A bunch of stuff was going through my head. ‘Why is there water on the floor?’ At first, I thought that maybe someone left the bathwater going all night. I didn’t expect that the water was there because it was literally flooding.
It was really bad because my mom wasn’t there. She was ironically in Alabama helping flood victims. We were trying to call her. I didn’t know what to do because my mom wasn’t there and my sister was freaking out. When we got ahold of my mom, she was so scared and said she was coming straight home. She gave us advice to unplug every electronic and put them in a high place so we wouldn’t get shocked. She said to make sure the animals were okay because we had five dogs and a few cats.
Everyone was so tired but we had to stay up. My brother and my sister’s boyfriend went and got sand from the police department. The police put it out there, and whoever wanted it, grabbed it. We tried to make barricades by putting towels under the door that led to the outside. We tried to soak up all the water that was already in the house, but it just kept coming in. That was really scary. My mom didn’t get back until 5:00 AM.
I was 13 years old. My room was completely destroyed. I had to move my mattress to the living room where there wasn’t mold everywhere and it wasn’t gross and wet. My little brothers also had to sleep in the living room. Seven kids sleeping in the living room is not the funnest thing in the world, especially if you value it being quiet. It was kind of hectic.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) approved 83,104 individual assistance applications in Louisiana, which totaled more than $776 million (FEMA).
My family aren't the richest people on Earth so we can’t just fix everything. We really had to save up to get the house to where it is now. We had to rip out some of the walls and some of the floors to get the mold off. You can see the insulation and stuff now. And we still haven’t gotten the floors replaced, so the living room is concrete. We did a lot of painting and reconstruction. FEMA gave us money so we could get our house back in order, but they didn’t give us much.
We all had to help out except for my littlest brother, Zackie, who was pretty young. The rest of us had to tear out carpets and build stuff. My mom’s friends helped remake my room. And I love my room now – it’s really cool! We had a lot of friends help. That was cool, knowing that even after a hard time, all these people were so helpful. I am thankful for that.
Weeks after the flood, the field by our house was still wet. We couldn’t go play in it anymore, since trees fell over and some are completely weird-looking and breaking. They’re not the healthiest right now.
I actually got involved in fighting climate change when I was eleven or twelve, after the Gulf oil spill. My family used to go down to the Gulf of Mexico for birthday parties or to swim. We loved going to the beach. The oil spill didn’t just wreck the beaches, it also wrecked the seafood. We couldn’t have fish or shellfish for a while. It was bad because being from Louisiana, you’re going to want shellfish. After that, I remember my mom took a lot of pictures of pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird, covered in oil, and a lot of fishes and turtles. Stuff that should be healthy in the Gulf Coast wasn’t healthy. I became more aware just seeing the damages and realized there was a lot to learn.
An explosion at the Deep Horizon drilling rig in 2010 caused the largest oil spill in the world. Over 200 million gallons of crude oil leaked into the the Gulf of Mexico (Congressional Research Service).
I went back to the Gulf once last year, but it was different. We were more cautious about the water. I heard rumors that you shouldn’t go into the water with an open wound. It wasn’t as fun as it used to be because we had to be careful not to hurt ourselves. Even a scratch would have been bad. And we didn’t go back after that because it was scary.
It frustrated me because I didn’t know if the Gulf Coast would ever recover. I started noticing the pattern of how oil companies were mistreating people of color and low-income people. You see power plants in the poorest parts of Louisiana. That’s completely unfair. Coming from a poorer family, it was very frustrating to me. It got to me.
I decided to be a part of the Juliana v. United States lawsuit against the U.S. federal government and work with Our Children’s Trust. I’m a plaintiff and I’m suing my government. I’m here to tell the government that climate change is affecting where I live. It’s affecting me and it’s affecting millions of other people. I’m excited because I’m not the only one that feels this way. I live in South Louisiana, so most people are climate change deniers. They say, ‘I don’t want my kids to learn about that.’ So, it was really exciting to meet other kids who feel the same way I do and want to make a difference. I want justice for Louisiana. I don’t want to go through what I went through two years ago ever again.
Juliana v. United States is a landmark constitutional climate change lawsuit filed by young people in 2015. The lawsuit "asserts that, through the government's affirmative actions that cause climate change, it has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources" (Our Children's Trust).
I hope the government takes this more seriously and takes future generations more seriously because we’re the protectors of the Earth. People say there are going to be large climate effects by 2020 and, in 2020, I’m going to be like 16. I won’t even be in my twenties. My brothers are still young, my sisters are still young, all my friends are still young, and there are people who are yet to be born. Being born in a disabled climate is not something I want for them. That’s why I really like this case. I want politicians to realize that Louisiana is drowning and really figure out ways to help.
It’s hard to be an activist when I’m in high school. I still want to hang out with my friends, play on my computer, and talk to my best friend on the phone. I’ve had to learn responsibility. It’s cool because I know I can get stuff done and also have fun. I go to sleep early, wake up early, and get stuff done early. Then I can relax and do whatever I want. It’s hard, but it’s also very important to me.
I live down here, so I want it to be healthy. I want everyone to be able to breathe, drink water, and live without worrying. It encourages me to know I’m not only helping myself, I’m helping my elders and younger generations. My advice to people is to just tell more people about climate change. Talk to people. Focus on your community and focus on where you are right now. It’s such a rewarding feeling to know that my voice is being heard. I’m going to make sure all these kids are going to be heard.”
1) Share Jayden's story.
2) Sign up at www.youthvgov.org/join to get involved with the work Jayden is doing.
3) Follow Jayden and other plaintiffs on social media: @youthvgov.
4) RSVP to the Facebook event for the trial.