Floods Didn't Spare New Orleans Graveyards

Flooding from Hurricane Katrina left numerous graves were damaged. Some simply washed away. Efforts continue in Louisiana to find and identify displaced bodies.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. The destruction wrought by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on homes and businesses in southern Louisiana has been well documented. Less well known is the fate of Louisiana's cemeteries. The storms tore bodies from caskets and crypts. Officials are now trying to identify the remains and return them to their gravesites. NPR's Audie Cornish reports on one of the country's largest recovery programs of its kind.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Edith Le France(ph) didn't want to abandon her post, and so the 911 dispatcher rode out Hurricane Katrina at work in Plaquemines Parish. But the most unexpected call she received that week was from her own supervisor.

Ms. EDITH LE FRANCE (911 Dispatcher, New Orleans): She had already visit the cemetery, and she said, oh, your dad is not there, and I said my dad is not there? And she said, no, it's a hole, and so, well, when we went down there, it was just a big hole.

CORNISH: The discovery was yet another blow to Le France who had lost her home in nearby Happy Jack to the storm.

Ms. LE FRANCE: You know, it was heartbreaking because how, where could they have gone? And I still don't know where they are.

CORNISH: Some 1,500 graves across the region were uprooted or disturbed last summer. People like Le France had no place to turn in those first weeks after the storm if they found their loved ones missing from local cemeteries. Parish level officials were among the first to try and address the issue.

Councilman MIKE MUDGE (Plaquemines Parish, New Orleans): My name is Mike Mudge. I'm one of the Plaquemines Parish councilmen, one of nine of us, and we're standing in the Diamond Cemetery.

CORNISH: This is where Le France's parents were.

Councilman MUDGE: You can see where, where tombs have been completely blown apart. You can see them where they have split in half. Uh, as we walk to the rear of the cemetery, I can show you where some of the tombs floated off to and where we had to retrieve a lot of these coffins on the adjacent properties. You can also see as you're lookin'...

CORNISH: The water table is so high in southern Louisiana, people can't bury their dead underground, and while New Orleans experienced flooding from the levee break, the primary damage to coastal parishes like Plaquemines came from the shear force of hurricane winds. The storm opened up mausoleum doors and tore off the heavy cement vault coffin covers in private and family cemeteries.

Councilman MUDGE: If you drove through Plaquemines Parish before we had a chance to do a recovery of the coffins, you literally had to drive your automobile around coffins that were on the street.

CORNISH: Mudge enlisted friends and coworkers for what he thought would be a small job.

Councilman MUDGE: At the time, we just thought it would be one or two weeks and we could have it completely wrapped up. Well, we're goin' onto the fifth month, and we're still wrappin' it up.

CORNISH: Ninety percent of the parish was evacuated for the storm, but many have not come back and may not even realize their family plots have been disturbed. Mudge says this is the biggest obstacle to identifying the coffins that have been dislodged. Mudge's crew has personally handled more than 600 graves at just a dozen or so sites. The simplest jobs involve resetting lids. The more difficult involve airboats and GPS to follow the line of debris, nylon ribbons, silk flowers and smashed cement. Albertine Kimble(ph) piloted the airboat with Mudge's crew.

Ms. ALBERTINE KIMBLE (Airboat Pilot): It was very emotional. It was like they died all over again, and you're gonna have to rebury everybody again, too, so it's like going through it all again.

CORNISH: This cemetery is typical of the region. It's small and privately maintained with the same few surnames echoing across the various tombstones and crypt doors. Le France, Silve(ph) and Barthelemy(ph), and Mudge says that's why it's important for even the unmarked remains to be returned to these plots.

Councilman MUDGE: We didn't want to take their loved one, bring it to a big massive gravesite where all of the other identified people from the state of Louisiana has gone, and, and put 'em in a pile on a big massive gravesite. At least here we have kept our own.

CORNISH: Mudge says he wants to pass new local burial codes to prepare for the upcoming hurricane season. He wants stricter requirements for sealing vaults and crypts and tying down coffins. Meanwhile, Louisiana state officials, working with the federal mortuary team, are posting signs at damaged cemeteries with a hotline number for families to call. Audie Cornish, NPR News, New Orleans.

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