SI and Two Funeral Homes Dedicate Hurricane Rita Monument


"You guys were all terrific.  What you gave to the people of Louisiana and particularly Cameron can never adequately be repaid."

Those were the words of Sam Jones, a member of the executive staff of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, when speaking about the efforts of the SI® Funeral Services in their restoration of 38 cemeteries and their teaming with both Johnson and Hixson Funeral Homes to rebury 297 recovered bodies.  SI is a division of Suhor Industries of Overland Park, Kansas and both funeral homes are located in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

On Sept. 23-24, 2005 Hurricane Rita hit Cameron Parish, Louisiana with 130 mile per hour winds and a 20 foot wall of water.  While miraculously none of the approximately 10,000 area residents were killed by the storm, 38 of the parish's 40 cemeteries were breached and 340 caskets and remains were torn from the earth, some scattered as far as 30 miles away into trees, fields and marshlands/waterways infested with alligators and snakes.   

On Saturday, Oct. 21, 2006, a monument was dedicated and a time capsule buried in the courtyard of the Cameron Parish Courthouse to honor the families of those affected by the storm and pay tribute to those involved in the nearly year-long re-internment process.

Initially DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team), FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and hundreds of rescue workers came to help.  But after a few weeks, the job was left to Zeb Johnson, Assistant Coroner for the neighboring Calcasieu Parish Forensic Center and owner of Johnson Funeral Home, to secure the help of outside contractors to assist in the recovery.  SI was selected because they 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.  

Keith Gallagher, SI Regional Manager for Louisiana, led the 10 person SI team responsible for cleaning and rebuilding the 38 cemeteries and assisting in the recovery and re-burial of bodies.  Gallagher, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, worked with the DMORT Family Assistance Coordinators helping grieving families identify bodies. Starting in mid-October, 2005, they worked along with both the Hixson and Johnson teams to complete the re-interment in May, 2006. 

Others key to the success of the program include:

·       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.

·       Matilda LaBove and Matilda Ann Bertrand, Hixson Funeral Directors, who boxed up and took all the burial records to Lake Charles before their Cameron location was totally destroyed.  It was this important information that allowed them and Jerrod Daigle, Hixson's Manager, to identify many of the recovered caskets and remains.

·       Johnson Funeral Directors, Glenn Richard, Charles Hunter and Troy Corville, who worked as investigators for the Calcasieu Parish Forensic Center.

On the morning of the dedication, area residents, recovery workers, media and dignitaries placed stories, photos and small memorabilia into the time capsule.

About 90 minutes prior to the dedication ceremony, thunderstorms moved the event from the front courtyard to the courtroom inside.  Speakers included local folks involved in the recovery; representatives of Louisiana's Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, U.S. Congressman Charles Boustany and U.S. Senator David Vitter; and 4 school children presenting the stories and drawings made by 1,500 public school students that would be placed in the time capsule.  The ceremony ended with the crowd joining interdenominational Cameron Parish Combined Choir in the singing of the official state song, "You Are My Sunshine."  During the singing of that song, the sky cleared and the sunshine filled the courtroom.  The crowed exited the courthouse to close the time capsule and gather for a free shrimp boil under clear skies. 

"The idea for the monument and time capsule was to let future generations know what life in Cameron Parish was like before and after Hurricane Rita hit, as well as bringing closure to those affected by this terrible event," stated Daigle, Chairman of the Dedication.  Over 200 people attended the day-long activities.

SI and both the Johnson and Hixson Funeral Homes donated the distinctive black and grey stone monument commemorating the efforts of the community in the rebuilding process.  The time capsule has a Wilbert Legacy custom designed photographic montage carapace that depicts the ravishes of Hurricane Rita and the rescue/clean-up effort.  It was donated by SI and the Wilbert Funeral Services Licensee Network.  The Cameron Parish Police Jury and Cameron Communications sponsored the shrimp boil. 

"While loosing their homes, businesses and churches was disastrous for the folks in Cameron Parish, having the final resting place of their loved ones destroyed was added agony," said Joe Suhor, Chairman/CEO, Suhor Industries.  "We were honored to be a part of the effort to restore this vital part of the Cameron Parish community."

Suhor Industries, Inc. is the nation's largest burial vault manufacturer and one of the leading funeral service providers in the country.  Its SI Veteran Memorials division has created hundreds of monuments since 1968, including the recently completed Kansas Korean War Veterans Memorial in Overland Park, Ks and providing the donor bricks at the recently renovated Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.  In the past six years SI® Construction Services has installed over 37,000 lawn crypts and 43,000 niches for the VA in 25 cemeteries in 15 states and is playing a major role in construction of the new Georgia National Cemetery.  SI Funeral Services provided the burial vaults for Presidents Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower and participated in the internment of both national leaders.

For more details and photos of the Cameron Parish/Hurricane Rita Re-interment Project and the Dedication event, go to…

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Articles appeared in the Cameron Pilot (10/12-10/19-10/26/06); American Press (10/22/06); Shreveport Times (10/21/06); Beaumont Enterprise (10/22/06); SCI Newsletter (11/6/06); YB News (12/1/06); Associated Press/Louisianna event calendar; and stories/interviews/promotions on KPLC -TV/NBC, KRVS-NPR and the Cameron area Cumulus and APEX radio stations.