The hurricane was not a major one but the sea still punched through a levee in tiny Braithwaite, 15 miles south of New Orleans and submerged citrus groves and residential neighborhoods and a number of downhome cemeteries. It was here that the destruction was most apocalyptic, for homes and fields come and go—a body in a tomb is meant to be at rest eternally. But Hurricane Isaac floated the large often homemade concrete crypts out of the ground like tiny battleships and sent them crashing into boats and homes and other crypts. In some cases the concrete crumbled and the coffins were freed, and they sailed out across the deluge, beaching themselves in the middle of roads and along the grassy green slopes of levees and in front lawns too, such as the one belonging to Anne Jones.
“We came back after the storm with four wheelers and flatboats and from the highway we seen it,” Anna told me. For years she has lived with her husband, kids, cows, chickens, geese, dogs and ducks beside pleasant Spanish moss-cloaked Promised Land Cemetery, never expecting that one day the vaults would bust open, and the coffins would come crawling out. “There were tombs everywhere, they had just picked up and floated away,” said Anna. “There were tombs all along the levee. There were tombs sitting by the kitchen window, and on our patio there was a single, a duplex—two tombs stacked atop one another—and also a four-plex.” The debris wasn’t always so tidy, in some cases coffins burst out of the crypts, and bodies burst of the coffins.
Residents of southern Louisiana are well-aware their land is low, this is why in New Orleans and the surrounding parishes most cemeteries put caskets and remains in aboveground crypts. But recently, even these elevated cemeteries are not safe resting grounds for the dead. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina smashed into Plaquemines Parish, a sheath of land that hugs the watery mouth of the Mississippi River and devastated the southern part of the parish. Northerly Plaquemines communities like Braithwaite missed the full brunt of Katrina. But seven years later, Hurricane Isaac, with sustained winds barely strong enough to register the storm as a hurricane, crumpled the protective levee system and drowned communities in up to fourteen feet of water. Hurricanes may or may not be getting larger, but what is certain is that weak storms are doing more and more damage.
The problem is that southern Louisiana is sinking. The oil industry has cut up the wetlands with canals, allowing salt water to invade freshwater habitats and eat away the marshy fringes. And levees have prevented the Mississippi from flooding its rich layer of land-building sediments onto areas adjacent to the river—starved of these sediments the land subsides. Combined with the assault of a warming ocean, this means seas in places like Plaquemines Parish are rising about as fast as anywhere on the planet. Southern Louisiana is in serious trouble, and Plaquemines may be in the biggest trouble of all. But like is common elsewhere in America, as seen along the Jersey Shore and the waterfront neighborhoods of New York City after Hurricane Sandy, or places like Oklahoma City after a tornado, human beings have a tendency to rush back out after a storm and attempt to pick up the pieces. When the pieces are tombs and the place is Plaquemines Parish, the man called for the job is Plaquemines Parish Sheriff’s Captain Mike Mudge.
“We would have a tomb busted up and then the coffin busted up and then the person comes out of that,” Mudge told me recently. “Then you are picking up everything trying to figure out who goes where and who goes what.” The process, honed by Mudge and his workers is like a morbid version of a child’s shape and sort game, though instead of plastic red and yellow squares, circles and stars, Mudge is dealing with rectangular crypts. Each crypt has its own footprint, explained Mudge, and by looking at the precise shape of the crypt, and the shape of the marks left in the ground back in the cemetery, Mudge can often connect which crypt floated from where. Still, the process is far more delicate than just placing pegs in their proper slots.
“You got to use the utmost discretion, because you are dealing with people’s loved ones and you got to handle them with dignity,” said Mudge. “This is not like the trash-man picking up trash on the side of the road, you are dealing with people, and here in Plaquemines it is people you probably know.”
Even when Mudge knows where a crypt belongs, it doesn’t mean moving it back will be easy. “These tombs are so old,” said Mudge, “that we can get it up with a forklift fine, but as soon as we hit a bump the whole thing crumbles.”
Part of the problem is that many of the crypts in Plaquemines are homemade, and don’t contain strengthening measures like steel rebar. “You got to keep in mind that if you are dealing with a family who had to make their own tomb you are dealing with people who don’t have a lot of money at their fingertips,” said Mudge. “Putting a bit of rebar in might make a tomb four times stronger, but also might make it too expensive for these people.”
In cases where remains have come out of their coffins, Mudge turns the task over to a team at Louisiana State University known as FACES, for Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services—think of the popular crime scene investigation show CSI, which the lab has advised on a number of occasions. After both Hurricanes Katrina and Hurricane Isaac the lab set up a temporary morgue near Baton Rouge, where remains could be identified. The FACES team analyzed and inventoried the bones to determine age, sex, height and ethnicity.
The hip bone conveys sex and age, lab leader Mary Manhein explained to NPR shortly after Katrina. The femur confers height. “At times they would get lucky,” said Manhein, “finding a hospital tag with a name, or a scroll within a glass tube where a funeral home once had inscribed the name and date of death.”
In short, for a situation that seems ghastly and absurd, a protocol has evolved. But the frightening thing is, with seas expected to rise four to six feet by the end of the century, according to commonly cited government estimates, it is a protocol that is going to have to be used more and more.
“When this first happened nobody really had a good grip on how to handle it,” said Mudge. “Now we are getting calls from other people on how to deal with this issue.”
One man who thinks he may have solved the issue is Pastor Michael, of Bethlehem Baptist Church, a light blue building just a few miles down the road from Promised Land Cemetery. Inside, the newly redone church glistens like an iced cake. “There was six feet of water in the church after Isaac hit and the levees failed,” Pastor Michael tells me one sunny morning. The church had just recently been built. “We didn’t have any idea that it was going to flood,” he says. But as for the church cemetery, the pastor says he was aware flooding had been a problem, and his church has found a way to beat the problem.
We go to see the cemetery, which is not right beside the church but down the road a few miles, in Bertrandville. The pastor drives a Ford F150 with the license plate: “J.C. is the Answer”, I drive a rental car. The spot is a clearing amidst a tangle of forest. In the front is a cemetery that looks like Promised Land, with dozens of slumped and sinking crypts, shaded by the Spanish-moss draped branches of a number of grand oaks. “Basically down here, everyone is put in the ground and after a few years it starts to sag,” explains the pastor, pointing at this cemetery.
His church’s cemetery is in the back, a row of concrete slots that resembles a row of mailboxes for giants. Only into the slots go coffins, not mail. There are 68 slots in total. The structure is like one massive open-faced crypt. “This is the quickest and easiest way to do it,” says the pastor.
Aren’t you concerned about the next storm, I ask.
No, the pastor is confident his tombs will last. Not only that, but within the next few years he plans to build another three rows, boosting his cemetery’s carrying capacity to 272 tombs. There are presently about 350 people in his congregation, and this would give nearly every one of them a spot. But such careful planning may be optimistic. Plaquemines residents like Mudge are not sure people are going to stick around. Not only are the lands sinking and the waters rising, but jobs are disappearing.
“The trend seems to be a lot of the younger people are moving away,” said Mudge. The trend has made the job of putting tombs that floated away back in the ground difficult. “You have all these elders lying around,” said Mudge, “and no one to identify them, because the youngsters are gone.”
However, Mudge also remained optimistic. He has recently suggested to the new parish president a number of changes that would make his job in the next storm easier. Mudge wants stricter requirements for sealing vaults and crypts, and for lashing crypts to the ground with seatbelt-like metal straps. He also wants to ensure new crypts are built with concrete reinforced with rebar. Putting markers on all crypts that correspond to markers in the ground is another good idea.
Meanwhile, I decide to visit the southern part of Plaquemines parish, the end of the road, the bottom of a withering claw-shaped stretch of land spit out by the Mississippi River and known as the Bird’s Foot Delta. It is less than an hour’s drive from my home in New Orleans, but it is a million miles away. Quaint, rural, scenic, and slowly but surely, crumbling away. Homes and even schools and community centers are on 20 foot stilts.
Just past a collection of homes known as Bohemia, the road truly does end. In a field of weeds on the other side of a fence is the “Rainbow Chaser”, a fishing boat washed in during Katrina and still unaccounted for. Some years earlier I had driven the same road and noticed the same boat in the exact same spot. I suppose the field has become the boat’s tomb. But really, I muse, the entire parish has become one gigantic tomb, and it is only a matter of time until the next storm pops it out of the ground, and sails the entire thing away into the sea.