It could take up to two years to recover displaced caskets in Jean Lafitte
JEAN LAFITTE, LA (WVUE) - Nearly six months after Hurricane Ida’s landfall and some small bayou communities are still cleaning up the mess. In Lafitte and Barataria, caskets and concrete vaults are still displaced from damaged cemeteries and are still sitting on the side of the road.
Officials with the Louisiana Cemetery Task Force said it could take several years before the caskets are returned to their proper resting places.
For lifelong Barataria resident John Bailey, every day when he crosses the Barataria Bridge he sees the displaced caskets.
“It makes me sad,” he said. “Makes me sad to see the caskets of people who passed not where they belong; not where they should be, you know.”
Hurricane Ida’s winds and storm surge displaced approximately 75 caskets in bayou areas of Southeast Louisiana-- from Ironton in Plaquemines Parish to Lafitte and Barataria in Jefferson Parish.
Cemetery Task Force officials said recovering displaced caskets is a multi-step process. First, the task force must identify the caskets, and in some cases where the casket is unidentifiable, they must send it off for a forensic study and skeletal analysis to determine who they are and where they belong.
The recovery process also requires a lot of money.
Chairman of the Louisiana Cemetery Task Force Ryan Seidemann said getting the funding from FEMA has been a struggle.
“It’s hard to put a number on it. It’s just regular operational costs,” said Seidemann. “But if we were to take a big company to come in and do identification work, we are talking about thousands of dollars per individual, but because we keep it in-house, it’s a negligible cost. It’s just a lot of LSU time donated and our time just tackling other stuff.”
Seidemann said the task force is only just winding down on work in Southeast Louisiana by recovering caskets displaced from Hurricane Laura in 2020. He said similarly, it could take up to two years to complete the work in Lafitte and Barataria.
“We have a whole different set of challenges for Ida than we did with Laura and the I.D. work out there,” he said. “It was definitely more damage but the remains were more easily accessible for identification. They were in caskets whereas a lot of stuff in both Ironton and Lafitte are in vaults still which are separated from their tombstone in many cases.”
He added that they just can’t assume where the caskets belong.
“If we simply go down there based on recollection of family members and things like what they think the casket was and where they think the tombstone was, and we put those folks back... odds that it will be the wrong one-- based on our experience over multiple disasters-- is pretty high,” said Seidemann. “Once we’ve got somebody put back in a space, whether it’s the right space or the wrong space, the FEMA funds are done. They’re gone and there is no chance for a do-over.”
For now, it’s a sad and disturbing sight to see six months after Hurricane Ida.
Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said he is frustrated with how long this process is taking. He’s hoping state representatives push for more federal funding to get the job done now that the Louisiana legislative session has begun.
“This is just a prime example of this is area is a real situation where people are really hurt,” said Kerner. “And right now they’re looking at passing their family members in a parking lot right now every single day and it’s something that we need to be resolved.”
Since Hurricane Laura, the Cemetery Task Force received about 4,000 claims of damage. For a task force manned only by three people for the entire state, the work is overwhelming.
“For us, we have to get it done right. And getting it done right means taking more time to make sure all the pieces fall into place in the correct order and we get positive identifications, then that we feel like is a better and more respectful way to handle these people’s loved ones than rather doing it quickly and incorrectly,” said Seidemann.
Seidemann said the public can reach out to the Cemetery Task Force with any questions or concerns by reaching the office at (225) 326-6056 or emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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