MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to remote Louisiana in the aftermath of another storm. Eight months ago, Hurricane Isaac made landfall in Plaquemines Parish. The storm brought the usual problems: a 12-foot storm surge, a thousand homes and businesses flooded and two deaths. But in Plaquemines, there was also the problem of the already dead. The storm washed away the above-ground tombs in cemeteries along the Mississippi River. Months later, many remains are still unidentified, some are missing altogether. Keith O'Brien has that story.
KEITH O'BRIEN, BYLINE: Lionel Alverez is in the cemetery again, taking inventory.
LIONEL ALVEREZ: There he is. Albert Alverez. Huey Alverez. Harold Alverez. My brother Allen is the near the rear, back there.
O'BRIEN: Alverez has been coming to the Promised Land Cemetery in Plaquemines Parish all his life. He's 61. The cemetery is hemmed in between the Mississippi River and the marsh on a lonely stretch of highway, the final resting place of the Alverezes for generations. And so, of course, when Lionel's mother Leola Alverez died four years ago at age 99, she wanted to be entombed here as well.
ALVEREZ: Her final resting place was very special to her.
O'BRIEN: Problem is, there's very little final about being buried in Plaquemines. Hurricane Isaac's storm surge plowed through the Promised Land and other cemeteries, ripping tombs off their foundations and scattering the remains of 194 people. Months later, 60 remain unidentified, and at least one, Leola Alverez, is missing. The water appears to have sheared her concrete vault in half.
MARY MANHEIN: They had a lot of vaults that had been disrupted, vaults on top of vaults, remains crushed, remains out of the vault, remains, you know, down the road, somewhere across the street, across the highway, all over the place.
O'BRIEN: Mary Manhein was one of the first officials on the scene last year. As director of the Louisiana Repository for Missing and Unidentified People, Manhein has learned a thing or two about the dead, including this: Louisiana's famous above-ground tombs don't sink.
MANHEIN: They float. They literally float. The water, I mean, it's amazing what water can do.
O'BRIEN: The tombs are necessary in South Louisiana, where some low-lying areas are at or below sea level. Dig a few feet down and a grave fills with water. But the above-ground system can pose problems during a storm. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, scattered the tombs of more than a thousand people. Most would never be identified. One tomb floated 33 miles. But in Plaquemines Parish, Isaac was worse.
MANHEIN: If the water had been much higher, if the storm surge had been much higher, many of those vaults and tombs would have gone right down the river, right down the Mississippi River, and they never would have been seen again.
O'BRIEN: Manhein began identifying the remains. With some, it was easy. There was a name tucked inside the casket. But others proved more difficult.
MANHEIN: They had vaults where there was nothing in them. So where in the world did the person in the casket go?
O'BRIEN: That was certainly the question in the case of Ethel Fitte, who died last summer. For months after Isaac, Roland Phillips, an oysterman, couldn't find his mother-in-law anywhere and was about ready to give up.
ROLAND PHILLIPS: We had the hole. We was going to build a monument, you know, that way we can know that was her spot. She was buried right next to her husband.
O'BRIEN: But late last fall, a helicopter pilot spotted an object, white and rectangular, beached like a boat in the marsh, a tomb - Ethel perhaps.
PHILLIPS: Sure enough, that was her. It was a little better than two miles, almost three miles from the cemetery.
O'BRIEN: Others, though, are less fortunate.
JOHN VICKERS: Promised Land, 112B. And this is Promised Land 56.
O'BRIEN: On a recent afternoon, funeral director John Vickers threads his way to the back of the Promised Land Cemetery. The unidentified have been placed here in new tombs. No names, just numbers.
VICKERS: The problem is you might be dealing with the next of kin being grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren, and they don't even know if grandfather or grandmother is missing. They don't even remember them.
O'BRIEN: Of course, that's not the case with Lionel Alverez.
ALVEREZ: Here we have my aunt, Annie Reed, and my sister, Inez Jackson. They are in place, and they did not move.
O'BRIEN: And he can't believe that his mother, Leola, isn't here with them. He hopes there has been some mistake, that she's in one of the numbered tombs perhaps, or somewhere else nearby. But he has no idea where to begin looking for her casket.
ALVEREZ: You can see how far the wooded area goes back here. It goes for miles and miles and miles. It can be anywhere, if it's not here. She can be anywhere.
O'BRIEN: In that forest, in the marsh, down some lonesome bayou or lagoon. Surely, Leola Alverez is out there somewhere. But just where is anyone's guess. For NPR News, I'm Keith O'Brien.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.