Authorities go silent on discovery of bones in floodway

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Scores of bone fragments unearthed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blasted the Birds Point-New Madrid levee could fall prey to looters and morbid treasure collectors, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.

But while securing the 6.5-acre site and identifying the potentially ancient remains could take months, there will be no delay in rebuilding the levee, a corps spokesman said.

More than a month after the discovery of the fragments, agencies assisting in the investigation have stopped talking about the find.

"The Native American tribes that the Missouri Department of Natural Resources have been working with have asked that we provide no further information about any possible human burials found in the area," the agency said in a news release. "They are concerned about possible looting that may occur from continued publicity."

Out of respect for the tribes, the DNR said it will not provide any statement about the "possible discovery."

"We will, however, continue to work with local, federal and tribal officials to seek the proper and appropriate resolution in a respectful manner," the agency said in its statement.

The corps is taking the same position, reiterating that tribal groups have asked the agency not to comment.

Several sources have confirmed the Osage Nation American Indian tribe is involved in the investigation. The tribal official reportedly leading the identification campaign has not returned several calls from the Southeast Missourian seeking comment.

While the identification and reinterment of the remains could take months, corps spokesman Jim Pogue said the effort will not delay the levee's restoration.

"Right now we don't feel like it's going to impact the timeline at all," he said. "We think we're going to be able to work through this and not have anything slow this down. We're still kind of on this interim schedule, and we don't feel like we will fall behind."

Late last month, Pogue said he didn't know whether the levee's reconstruction would be stalled.

In mid-June, the corps confirmed it would rebuild to 51 feet the three breach points in the front-line levee, what Pogue called an "interim fix."

Corps spokesman Bob Anderson said the interim project is expected to be wrapped up in October or November, depending on the weather.

The corps plans to fully rebuild the levee, restoring it to its previous state before crews breached it and allowed a swollen Mississippi River to burst through and drown some 130,000 acres of fertile farmland in the Mississippi County floodway. That ultimate restoration campaign, scheduled for completion by March -- the start of Missouri's flood season -- is contingent on congressional debate and funding.

Corps crews have spent recent weeks constructing a berm to protect the sodden area from the rapid rise of the river amid early summer flooding upstream. The berm work on the levee's middle crevasse, the last section blown, is complete, said corps spokeswoman Rachel Rodi. Crews now are working on grading and stabilizing the upper and lower crevasses, to reset back to "elevation 51," the temporary measure before the permanent rebuild, Rodi said.

Mississippi and New Madrid County farmers have expressed anxiety over the timeline of the fix, and the discovery of the remains and the red tape likely to go with them have only added to the concern.

On June 18, Mark Seesing, funeral director at Ford and Sons Funeral Home and member of the Missouri Funeral Directors and Embalmers Association's Disaster Response Team, traveled to the north end of the blown levee, the site where the bones were first found. Seesing said he and his teenage son had marked 143 fragments ranging from 1-inch-by-1-inch chips to jaw fragments to a nearly complete femur.

Mississippi County Coroner Terry Parker said some pottery and other relics were discovered at the site, further indication that the bone fragments were from a native tribal community.

Jurisdiction was quickly turned over to the state.

Pogue and others said the goal is to handle reinterment of the remains as respectfully as possible, while moving expeditiously on the levee work.

"Everyone working together on this understands a lot of parties involved have a lot of interest in this," Pogue said. "Cooperation has been real good, and everyone understands we need to get the reconstruction accomplished as soon as possible."

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

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