With its furious winds, Hurricane Ida battered Louisiana with storm surges so strong it caused damage to homes and destroyed roofs. It did more than damage to the living. It also caused trauma to the dead by moving vaults, caskets, and adding an additional layer of trauma to families and communities that were still recovering from the storm.
The Rev. said, “Once you bury someone close to you, you expect that place to be your permanent resting spot.” Haywood Johnson Jr. lives in Ironton, south-west of New Orleans, along the Mississippi River. Ida’s flood destroyed almost every home in the neighborhood and pushed heavy vaults, including those containing Johnson’s mother, from their resting places into the streets.
“Some of these tombs are a few tons in weight. The water came in and ripped them apart like cardboard boxes. Johnson stated that this was because of the force of water.
Louisiana’s location is in a hurricane-prone area. This, combined with cultural burial practices that often place the dead above ground, makes it a problem in the wake of severe hurricanes.
Ryan Seidemann is the head of the state’s Cemetery Response Task Force. This task force was established after widespread flooding in Baton Rouge in 2016 caused severe damage to cemeteries throughout the region. The task force members begin surveying cemeteries immediately after a storm, in order to assess the damage.
Sometimes, flooding from heavy rain or storm surge can cause vaults to be moved so far away that it isn’t immediately obvious where they are buried. Vaults are often made from thousands of pounds concrete or cinder blocks. Sometimes, there can be air pockets in the vaults and concrete can actually be buoyant.
They float. They will go where the water takes them. He said that they have been recovered from yards, levees and under stairwells. “There is no rhyme or reason to where they rest. It’s a logistical problem for us to figure out how we can get them out.”
Recovery is only the beginning. The next step is to identify the remains. Families are often contacted by the team to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance to cover reburial costs. Seidemann stated that the task force continues to deal with hurricane damage last year, which resulted in remains being dumped into coastal marshes.
Seidemann stated that if families are left displaced after a hurricane, it is like “opening up old hurts.”
People who are trying to rebuild their homes and businesses find a vault or casket in their yards or roads. However, Seidemann stated that people are usually patient and want the remains to be returned to their families.
Thomas Halko resides along Bayou Barataria, where it intersects in southeastern Louisiana. A small cemetery for his family is located in the middle of his property, often called the Perrin Family Cemetery or the Lafitte cemetery.
Halko discovered thick layers of mud on the property after the hurricane. One of his houses was pushed off its 4-foot high pillars, and two of the graveyard’s heavy stone vaults were moved. One of the vaults was found to be atop the levee separating the property and the bayou. Halko believes that another vault was located across the road.
Halko stated that the cemetery took a lot of beatings. He pointed to the vault at the top of the road and said, “That’s just one example.”
Edward Perrin’s relatives are buried there, as well as other cemeteries along the long ridge of land that runs towards the Gulf of Mexico. According to Perrin, at least one vault was damaged by Rita and had been recovered. He said that he thought he would want to be buried at Goose Bayou’s family cemetery, but graves disturbances made him reconsider.
He said that all of the water problems are causing problems in worshipping, burying and even living.
Arbie Goings, who is also a former funeral director, stated that families often use sandbags or straps to secure graves in the event of a storm. It can be difficult to identify remains when they are lost, especially if there is no way to match dental records or DNA.
Goings explained that some caskets come with a small plastic tube, called a memory tube. This tube allows funeral homes to put identification information. He said that they have sometimes found the name of the deceased at the foot of the casket, or embossed it into a piece cloth covering the bottom.
Family members often have key details that can be used to identify someone. He recalls a case in which they identified the remains of a woman by the marbles her grandchildren had placed in her casket to honor her love for the game.
Sometimes, they exhaust all possibilities. A few people who were unable to be identified following the 2016 floods are buried in Plainview Cemetery, Denham Springs. Sometimes, even after extensive searches, caskets disappear and are not found.
Seidemann predicted that it would take up to two years to restore all the Ida-displaced remains to their rightful homes. This is about the time it took to recover all the Baton Rouge residents who were displaced by the 2016 floods.
The team was in Lafitte and Ironton collecting the caskets and vaults that were scattered by the water. They will be reburied once they have been identified. The Rev. Johnson stated that he would like to hold a ceremony to honor the deceased at that time.