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HomeU.S.Grim Task of Identifying Buried Remains Unearthed by Floods in Louisiana Could...

Grim Task of Identifying Buried Remains Unearthed by Floods in Louisiana Could Take Years

Hurricane Ida continues to cause pain and destruction a month after hitting Louisiana, moving caskets and buried loved ones to be rediscovered and identified.

The waters from the hurricane moved the cement vaults, some weighing tons, around the state. The extensive search to not only find the caskets but also identify the remains is extremely difficult, and some caskets are never found, the Associated Press reported.

According to Ryan Seidemann, chair of the state’s Cemetery Response Task Force, this devastating situation is not a one-time occurrence, as after the 2016 floods in Baton Rouge also had the same problem of moved or missing vaults.

Seidemann estimates it could take as long as two years to find and return all the remains, which is about how long it took after the 2016 floods.

“They float. They tend to go wherever the water goes. We’ve recovered them from yards, from levees, from underneath stairwells. There’s no rhyme or reason, really, to where they come to rest, and then it’s kind of our logistical problem to figure out how to get them out of there,” Seidemann said.

Seidemann said that this process is not only logistically difficult but emotionally difficult for families and communities as recovering the remains includes “opening up old wounds.”

“They’re going to have to go through the whole grieving process again,” Seidemann said.

“Once you bury a relative, you expect that to be the permanent resting place,” said Rev. Haywood Johnson Jr., of Ironton, Louisiana.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Hurricane Ida continues to cause pain and destruction even a month after hitting Louisiana, moving caskets and buried loved ones around the city to be rediscovered and identified, a painful reminder for those who lost ones in the deadly storm. Sept. 27, 2021, a displaced casket that floated from a cemetery during flooding from Hurricane Ida, sits among displaced marsh grass and ruin, in Ironton, La.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

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

In some cases, storm surge or flooding from heavy rain can move the vaults so far that it’s not immediately clear where they were buried. Often made of thousands of pounds of concrete or cinder block, vaults can have air pockets inside and the concrete itself can actually be more buoyant than people realize, Seidemann said.

And recovery is just the first step. The team then has to identify the remains and often works with families to get Federal Emergency Management Agency aid for reburial costs. Even as they’re working on post-Ida recovery, Seidemann said the task force is still dealing with damage from hurricanes last year that sent remains into coastal marshes.

It’s also upsetting for people struggling to rebuild their homes or their businesses who come across a vault or casket on their yard or road, although Seidemann said people are generally patient and just want the remains returned to provide closure for families.

Thomas Halko lives along Bayou Barataria where it intersects with Goose Bayou in southeastern Louisiana. In the middle of his property is a small family cemetery often referred to as the Lafitte Cemetery or the Perrin Family cemetery.

After the hurricane, Halko found thick layers of mud washed over the property, one of his houses pushed off its 4-foot-high pillars and two of the heavy stone vaults in the cemetery moved. One came to rest atop the levee that separates the property from the bayou. Across the road was another vault that Halko thinks was in the cemetery.

“It took quite a beating,” Halko said, speaking of the cemetery. Gesturing to the vault on top of the road, he said: “That’s one example.”

Edward Perrin has relatives buried there as well as in other cemeteries in the long ridge of land that stretches toward the Gulf of Mexico. He said at least one vault became dislodged after Rita and had to be recovered. The 87-year-old said he had thought he might want to be laid to rest at the family’s cemetery on Goose Bayou but the graves disturbances have made him reconsider.

“All of this water situation is causing problems with worshiping and burying and living,” he said.

Families sometimes strap down graves or use sandbags to keep them in place ahead of a storm, said Arbie Goings, a task force member who is also a retired funeral director. When they do get displaced, identifying remains can be challenging, especially in cases of long-dead people with fewer, if any, ways to match things like dental records or DNA.

Some caskets have a little plastic tube — called a memory tube — screwed into its end where a funeral home can put identifying information, Goings said. In some cases, they’ve found the name at the foot of the casket or embroidered into a piece of cloth covering the bottom part of the person, he said.

Often family members can give key identifying details. He recalled one case where they identified a woman’s remains by the marbles her grandchildren put in her casket 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.

The team has been in Ironton and Lafitte gathering the vaults and caskets scattered by the water.

Hurricane Ida continues to cause pain and destruction even a month after hitting Louisiana, moving caskets and buried loved ones around the city to be rediscovered and identified, a painful reminder for those who lost ones in the deadly storm. On Sept. 27, 2021 damaged tombs in Ironton, La.
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

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