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A Success Story Emerges From the Aftermath of Hurricane Rita

8/28/2006

(Cameron Parish, LA)…As the first anniversary of Hurricane Rita approaches, Louisiana's largest parish has an important part of its community back. Thirty-eight of Cameron Parish's 40 cemeteries were breached when 130 mile per hour winds and a 20 foot wall of water hit the shore on September 24, 2005. Thanks to a joint effort by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), SI® Funeral Services, Johnson and Hixson Funeral Homes of Lake Charles, Louisiana and hundreds of volunteers, the cemeteries have been restored. Nearly 300 bodies have been returned in new caskets and vaults to their original burial sites.

"For the nearly 10,000 residents of Cameron Parish, losing their homes, businesses and churches was disastrous, but having the final resting place of their loved ones destroyed was added agony," says Joe Suhor, Chairman/CEO, Suhor Industries (parent company of SI Funeral Services).  "We were honored to be a part of the effort to restore this vital part of the Cameron Parish community."

Since this part of the country is mainly marshlands, the usual forms of burial here are surface vaults and mausoleums. When Hurricane Rita struck, the storm disturbed virtually all the surface vaults and approximately 30% of the mausoleums and in-ground grave sites.  Over 340 caskets and bodies were sucked out of the ground and scattered into marshes, tree tops, pastures and canals as far as 30 miles away.

Local Authorities Spring into Action

With Hurricane Rita coming closely on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana and the surrounding areas were stressed for both assistance and equipment.  The military and coast guard resources available for Cameron Parish were limited.  On September 26, Cameron's coroner, Dr. Richard Sanders, contacted Zeb Johnson, assistant coroner for the neighboring Calcasieu Parish Forensic center and owner of Johnson Funeral Home, requesting their assistance in directing the clean-up and re-interment process in Cameron Parish.   

After two days of flying over the flooded area, Johnson and Sanders knew the number of bodies and caskets needing to be retrieved would be much larger than originally estimated.  They met with the FEMA/DMORT response team and its team leader, Shelly Roy, and Johnson began formulating a plan to recover, identify, re-casket and rebury the remains. The process started September 29 and for the next 5 months DMORT, Johnson and his team of 3 funeral directors, took on the monumental task.

It soon became evident that recovering bodies and caskets from remote areas would be challenging.  Some bodies were able to be recovered by simply wading into the marshes. However, alligators and snakes were abundant and very aggressive. It was necessary that the rescuers have snake anti-venom, as well as paramedics and SWAT teams to shoot the predators when they came too close.

Help Pours In From Around the World

The hundreds of rescue workers included Alabama Army National Guard members, as well as policemen, firemen, paramedics and volunteers from as far away as Kentucky, Illinois, California and France.  Lt. Colonel Reasoner from Ft. Hood, Texas advised Johnson to secure the help of outside contractors to assist in the recovery. The job was much larger than originally estimated and could not be completed with the volunteers and military alone.

In mid-October, Johnson contacted Suhor and Keith Gallagher, SI Regional Manager for Louisiana, SE Texas and Arkansas, who quickly approved and arranged for SI Funeral Services' participation in the restoration and re-interment project.  SI had handled a similar re-interment in Hardin, Missouri in 1992 when floodwaters washed away more than 800 caskets and bodies from a cemetery with graves dating back to the late 1800's.

SI began the process of cleaning, refurbishing and preparing the cemeteries for burial.  For six weeks, graves were pumped out, vaults were evaluated and removed if damaged.  As bodies were found they were transferred to Lake Charles and then to a temporary morgue site in Carville, Louisiana.  On January 25, fifteen 18-wheelers returned 297 casketed remains to Cameron Parish.  The primary focus now was to identify the many still unidentified bodies and get them reburied. 

Ninety percent of Cameron Parish's funerals were performed by Hixson Funeral Home. Before fleeing Hurricane Rita, mother and daughter funeral directors Matilda LaBove and Matilda Ann Bertrand boxed up and took all the burial records to Lake Charles.  It was this important information that allowed them and Jerrod Daigle, Hixson's manager, to identify the recovered caskets and remains.

On February 2, SI began delivering surface vaults, as well as underground burial vaults, and the process began.  On March 23, the re-interment process began with 23 bodies buried in one day.  

Gallagher, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, headed up the 10 person SI team and worked with the DMORT Family Assistance Coordinators to help grieving families identify bodies.  He managed the Hurricane Rita recovery project from mid-October until its completion in July 2006. Other key members of the SI team were SI plant managers Mike Gordon (Oakdale, LA), Gary Keller (Beaumont, TX) and Chip Winkle (Shreveport, LA). The Oakdale plant manufactured all the new surface vaults and all three plants supplied project workers.

"The counsel of Keith Gallagher and SI Funeral Services made this work," Johnson stated. "Without their knowledge and expertise I doubt that this would have been accomplished." 

"Let's not forget the important part that all the area funeral homes played," stated Gallagher.  Adding to the difficulty of the project, the hurricane totally destroyed SCI's Hixson Funeral Home in Cameron Parish and damaged their Lake Charles facility.  "The Hixson and Johnson Funeral Homes in Lake Charles worked along side us in the burial process and the other two area funeral homes, Robison and Combre, helped by providing hearses to transport bodies from the holding area to the gravesites.  Since some families were having re-interment services it was also mandatory that all bodies be accompanied by a licensed funeral director.   All the funeral homes provided their services at no charge to any family or public entity."

What's Next?

Out of the 340 bodies, 43 are still missing.  "As of May 14, 2006, the last bodies were buried," Johnson stated. "As additional bodies are found, they will be given the same respectful individual attention to return them to their proper resting place."

To mark Hurricane Rita's first anniversary, this fall Johnson and Hixson Funeral Homes will once again team up with SI Funeral Services to donate and dedicate a memorial. The monument will be erected near the courthouse in Cameron, as a way to commend the efforts of the community in its rebuilding process.  Daigle is leading this effort. More details on this monument dedication will be released to the media as the date gets closer.

For more details and photos of the Cameron Parish/Hurricane Rita Re-interment Project, go to http://www.suhor.com/news/cameronparish.htm.

Information on attached photos (higher resolution images are available upon request):

SI_Cameron_05.jpg (Photo: Flooded cemetery w/Cross on hill)

Immediately after Hurricane Rita hit on September 23-24, 2005, 75% of the 2,000 square mile area of Cameron Parish was underwater.  Thirty-eight of the parish's 40 cemeteries were breached, disturbing virtually all the surface vaults and approximately 30% of the mausoleums and in-ground gravesites.  Thanks to a joint effort by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), SI® Funeral Services, Johnson and Hixson Funeral Homes of Lake Charles, Louisiana and hundreds of volunteers, all the cemeteries have now been restored.   

SI_Cameron_06.jpg (Photo: Casket in tree)

While none of the nearly 10,000 residents in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, were killed by Hurricane Rita, 38 of the parish's 40 cemeteries were breached and over 340 caskets and bodies were torn from the ground and scattered into tree tops, marshes, pastures and canals as far as 30 miles away. 

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Articles appeared in The Kansas City Start (8/29/06); American Press (8/31/06 & 10/11/06); ICFA Magazine (10/1/06); YB News 10/6/06); Johnson County Sun (10/19/06); Shreveport Times (10/21/06) and the Lafayette Daily Advertiser (10/22/06)