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Coffins and vaults still displaced in Louisiana after Hurricane Ida

LAFITTE, Louisiana – Hurricane Ida swept through Louisiana with furious winds that tore off the roofs of buildings and a storm surge so powerful it moved homes. What he did to the living he did to the dead as well, shifting vaults and coffins and adding another layer of trauma for families and communities recovering from the mighty storm.

“Once you have buried a relative, you expect this to be the permanent resting place,” said Rev. Haywood Johnson Jr., who lives in the small community of Ironton in southern Nova Scotia. Orleans along the Mississippi River. Ida’s surge destroyed nearly every home in the community and pushed heavy arches – including those containing Johnson’s mother and other relatives – from their resting places on the streets.

“Some of these graves weigh a few tons. And the water came and disturbed it like it was cardboard boxes. It was the force of the water, ”Johnson said.

Louisiana’s location in a hurricane-prone region and cultural burial practices that often rest the dead above the ground make the problem common in the aftermath of severe hurricanes or other flooding.

Ryan Seidemann chairs the state’s Cemetery Response Task Force, which was formed after the 2016 Baton Rouge floods that caused widespread problems in cemeteries in the flood-affected region. Members of the task force begin to inspect cemeteries as soon as they can after a storm to assess damage.

In some cases, a storm surge or flooding caused by heavy rains can displace arches so far that it is not immediately clear where they were buried. Often made up of thousands of pounds of concrete or cinder blocks, vaults can contain air pockets inside and the concrete itself can actually be more buoyant than people realize, Seidemann said.

“They float. They tend to go wherever the water goes. We picked them up in the yards, on the dikes, under the stairwells, “he said.” There is no rhyme or reason, really, as to where they stop, and it’s kind of our logistical problem figuring out how to get them out of there.

And recovery is only the first step. The team then needs to identify the remains and often works with families to get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with reburial costs. Even though they are working on post-Ida recovery, Seidemann said the task force is still dealing with damage from last year’s hurricanes that sent remnants into the coastal marshes.

In the aftermath of a hurricane, having displaced remains is like “reopening old wounds” for families, Seidemann said: “They are going to have to go through the whole grieving process again.”

It’s also upsetting for people struggling to rebuild their homes or businesses who come across a safe or coffin in their yard or road, though Seidemann said people are generally patient and just want the remains. are returned to close families.

Thomas Halko lives along the Bayou Barataria where he crosses the Goose Bayou in southeast Louisiana. In the middle of his property is a small family cemetery often called Lafitte cemetery or Perrin family cemetery.

After the hurricane, Halko found thick layers of mud on the property, one of his houses pushed up its 4-foot-high pillars, and two of the cemetery’s heavy stone arches moved. One came to a stop at the top of the dike that separates the property from the bayou. Across the road was another safe which Halko said was in the cemetery.

“It took quite a few hits,” Halko said, of the cemetery. Pointing to the vault above the road, he said: “This is an example.”

Edward Perrin has relatives buried there as well as in other cemeteries in the long ridge of land that stretches out towards the Gulf of Mexico. He said at least one chest was dislodged after Rita and had to be retrieved. The 87-year-old said he thought he might want to be buried at the Goose Bayou family cemetery, but the grave unrest made him reconsider.

“This whole water situation is causing problems of worship, burial and life,” he said.

Families sometimes tie up graves or use sandbags to hold them in place before a storm, said Arbie Goings, a member of the task force who is also a retired funeral director. When moved, identifying remains can be difficult, especially in cases of people who have died long ago with little or no means to match items such as dental records or DNA.

Some caskets have a small plastic tube – called a memory tube – screwed into the end where a funeral home can put identifying information, Goings said. In some cases, they found the name at the foot of the coffin or embroidered on a piece of cloth covering the lower part of the person, he said.

Often, family members can provide key identifying details. He recalled a case where they identified the remains of a woman by the marbles her grandchildren put in her coffin in honor of her love of the game.

In some cases, they exhaust all options. A handful of people who could not be identified after the 2016 floods are buried at Plainview Cemetery in Denham Springs. And sometimes, despite extensive research, coffins go missing and are never found.

Seidemann estimated that it could take up to two years to return all the remains displaced by Ida to their rightful place. That’s about the time it took after the 2016 floods in the Baton Rouge area.

The team traveled to Ironton and Lafitte to collect the vaults and coffins scattered by the water. When they are identified, they will be reburied. At Ironton, Reverend Johnson said he hopes to hold a ceremony at that time to honor the dead.

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