Concerns raised for cemeteries after Hurricane Harvey floods
HOUSTON (AP) — Hurricane Harvey floodwaters exposed dozens of caskets at swamped cemeteries in Texas and Louisiana last month, the grim result of shallow graves set in spongy soil, and a scene that may reappear as Florida cleans up after Hurricane Irma.
The Dallas Morning News reports most burial sites are undisturbed by flooding. The weight of a cement casing and several feet of soil typically keep graves planted in the ground.
But at the Hollywood Cemetery in Orange, Texas, which backs up the flood-swollen Sabine River, and 20 miles north in Starks, Louisiana, more than 20 caskets surged to the surface after Harvey’s torrential rains, and some floated away.
“We’ve already collected 15 caskets at this point, and we don’t have them all,” said Charles Hunter, the Calcasieu Parish chief coroner investigator. “We found one a quarter-mile away.”
Hunter said aboveground burials, like mausoleums, and surface are favored in Louisiana because the soil is so easily saturated with water. In his parish, most crypts are about three feet deep with a cement cover.
“In a flood, the air pressure builds up in that vault and it will eventually break the seal,” he said. “When that happens, the lid just pops off. I’ve even seen the water pick up the entire vault, and they can weigh in excess of 3,000 pounds.”
Hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Ike all washed away caskets, in some cases breaking apart wooden coffins, leaving medical examiners the macabre task of matching remains to empty grave sites.
When local coroners are unable to keep up with the work — like after 200 sets of remains were unearthed during Hurricane Rita — the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sends in teams of specialists to help process and refrigerate the bodies.
Gretchen Michael, a spokeswoman for the agency, said teams have not needed to deploy to Texas, Louisiana or Florida.
In Houston, as floodwaters continued to recede, most cemeteries along the city’s engorged bayous and drainage channels reopened. Mud still covered a few grave markers at the historic Hollywood Cemetery, and a construction crew repaired a buckled road at Glenwood Cemetery, but most grave sites appeared undisturbed.
Officials at the Harris County medical examiner’s office and Harris County Health Department said the city’s cemeteries emerged from the flooding largely intact.
Dr. David Persse, the physician in charge of Houston’s Emergency Medical Services and Public Health Authority, said even if buried corpses had washed into the city’s bayous, they would pose very little health risk.
Embalming kills all pathogens in the body, he said, and corpses buried before the practice would be so decomposed in diluted floodwater there would be no danger.
“It’s a horrible thing to think about, what happened in Katrina,” he said, “but it doesn’t pose any particular health risk. It’s just incredibly emotionally disturbing for those family members.”
Bob Gregg buried his wife of 61 years, Margaret, about two weeks before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from two Houston-area reservoirs. The runoff trapped the 88-year-old in his house and likely flooded his wife’s gravesite.
“If the Lord has her floating down a river someplace, I don’t know how to feel about that,” he said. “It isn’t anything I would have ever thought about, and it doesn’t necessarily concern me.”
Charles Cook, a 61-year-old caretaker of Olivewood Cemetery, a historic resting place of former slaves and many of the city’s African-American pioneers, said flooding has reshaped the 7½-acre plot for centuries.
Harvey was no different. Empty beer cans, twisted branches and trash carpet a briar-choked ravine under a canopy of towering live oak trees.
“This is what haunts me,” Cook said, motioning to a tilted stone marker about to slide into a gully alongside the White Oak Bayou northwest of downtown. “If it keeps eroding, this is my next casualty, a World War I veteran, so I cry every time I come out here.”
The headstone is weathered. What’s left reads: “Joseph Adams, PVT, 355 Labor BAT, Jan 27, 1919.”
Olivewood is sacred, and some say it is haunted. A ghost hunter once allegedly videotaped a translucent form above the grave of Mary White, who died in 1988.
Historian Louis Aulbach, author of “Buffalo Bayou: An Echo of Houston’s Wilderness Beginnings,” chuckled at superstitions evoked by the city’s waterways. One kayak operator tells tourists that cool winds are whispers of the dead, an attempt to connect from beyond the grave.
“Every Halloween I get calls from the media who want to know what the ghost stories are,” Aulbach said, “and I tell them, ‘I deal with history, not the supernatural.’”
Hurricane Harvey flooded a few of Houston’s landmark cemeteries, which hug about a dozen bayous winding through downtown.
Chocolate milk-colored water surged through one of Congregation Beth Yeshurun’s two cemeteries, Allen Parkway, but eventually drained away and left the site’s tombs intact.
Aulbach said the process of creeping and receding water has shaped Houston’s landscape since it was founded in 1836 along the banks of the Buffalo Bayou, and long before then.
Harvey showed that process isn’t going to end anytime soon, even with man-made reservoirs and cemented channels running through downtown.
“It was a historic flood event,” he said. “And it’ll eventually happen again.”
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com