Hurrican Isaac dislodges caskets (Photo Courtesy: USA Today)
PROMISE LAND CEMETERY, LA - Power has returned in most places, but many tombs and caskets dislodged during Hurricane Isaac have not.
Officials in southern Louisiana are trying to locate, identify and return more than 100 wayward tombs and caskets dislodged from their cemetery plots during the storm. Dozens of sets of remains forced from their caskets remain unidentified as well.
The above-ground tombs were pushed from their plots -- some more than a mile away -- by a 14-foot storm surge that overran local levees and pounded communities in northern Plaquemines Parish just outside the federal hurricane protection system. The concrete tombs were cracked open and swept away by the force of the floods, said Mike Mudge, a Plaquemines Parish Sheriff's Office official leading the effort to return the caskets and tombs.
The number of tombs displaced by Isaac is a fraction of the 1,500 dislodged across the Gulf Coast during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. But the problem is still a significant and challenging one, Mudge said. State health officials, funeral directors, forensic scientists and contractors are teaming up to get the caskets back to their final resting place, while trying to respect the integrity of the tombs, he said. So far, about one-fourth of the 100 displaced tombs have been identified and returned to their proper place.
"This has to be done with dignity and respect," Mudge said. "These are some person's loved ones."
Most of the dislodged tombs came from three cemeteries -- Promise Land, Bertrandville and English Turn -- along an eight-mile stretch of Louisiana Highway 39 in northern Plaquemines Parish, he said. Residents returned to the area after the storm to find tombs, caskets and human remains littered across the highway and on the levee next to the highway. Some residents located family tombs right away. Many are still searching.
Herman Bienemy went to the small Promise Land community cemetery four days after the storm subsided to check on a four-casket tomb holding his mother, father, sister and nephew. Only his nephew's casket remained. His father's skull was in an empty plot where the casket once lay. His mother, sister and father remain missing.
"Astonishing," Bienemy, 72, said. "That's a concrete tomb. This has never happened here before."
On Wednesday, Lillian Brown, 62, cased the rows of overturned and cracked tombs in the cemetery, looking for her mother's crypt. "You see things like this in movies," she said. "You never think it'll happen in real life."
Brown picked through branches, scanning one tomb plate after another, and retraced her steps across the cemetery. The tomb had vanished. "It's a hurting thing to think your family is in one spot and they're not," she said.
Following the storm, work crews first went around collecting remains strewn across roads and yards and stored them for identifying, Mudge said. Next, the caskets needed to be collected, though most were waterlogged and too heavy to move. Workers carefully poked a small hole in each casket to drain the water, he said.
Some caskets had a small tube attached containing a small paper scroll inside -- known as a "memory vial" -- that gave the departed's name, sex and date of birth, which helped connect them to the right cemetery, Mudge said. Others had items inside the casket - a family portrait, teddy bear or six-pack of Budweiser - that helped identify the deceased, he said.
Unidentifiable remains were handed over to specialists at Louisiana State University's Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services, or FACES, Lab, a research lab that helps law enforcement agencies solve cases by identifying remains. Dental searches, casket dating and other forensic techniques are being used on about 30 sets of unidentified remains, said Mary Manheim, the lab's director. So far, around six have been positively ID'd, she said.
Some will never be identified, just as not all were identified during Katrina or Hurricane Ike, she said. "It's a needle in a haystack," Manheim said.
Plaquemines officials identified and returned all but 67 of the 360 tombs that became dislodged across the parish during Katrina, Mudge said. This time, using federal disaster funds, parish officials have ordered 100 new steel caskets and new concrete vaults to reinter all remains. Stainless steel plates with information on the deceased will be secured to the outside of the vault with an epoxy adhesive, and the vaults will be strapped to the ground with metal bands, he said.
Hopefully, he said, this will prevent tombs from washing away during the next big storm. But he's doubtful.
"This is not the first time," Mudge said. "And it's not going to be the last."
By Rick Jervis