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Flooded Vt. town struggles to ID cemetery remains
ROCHESTER, Vt. -- The remnants of Hurricane Irene killed four people in Vermont, but the storm scattered dozens of sets of human remains -- bodies pried from eternal rest in a mountain cemetery and swept down a raging river, where some may never be identified or even found.
Some of the 50 sets of remains from Woodlawn Cemetery in Rochester were left mostly intact in caskets that floodwaters ripped from the ground; others were old bones strewn around the cemetery or downstream. But some were more recently deceased, putting relatives in the painful position of describing facial features, clothing or jewelry to investigators so they can be identified and returned to the earth.
The flood on Aug. 28 stole the remains of five relatives of Darlene Thompson, 40, a lifelong resident of the Rochester area. The remains of her mother and father, who died in 2004 and last year, were soon found nearby. Her grandmother was recently found at a golf course five miles downriver. A stillborn brother and an uncle, both buried in the 1960s, will probably never be found, she said.
"Our situation has been a nightmare, but we are the lucky ones," Thompson said. "Out of five of the ones missing in our cemetery plot, the three most important ones were found."
As the head of the Rochester cemetery commission, Sue Flewelling's job before Irene involved selling lots and helping arrange burials. Now she's trying to figure out how to put back together the town's main cemetery, which dates to the early 1800s.
"We respect our people. They were Rochester residents, you know," Flewelling said. "You've got to treat them with respect; that's why we'd like to have them put back to where they picked out that they wanted to be."
But, if, and when, that can happen remains a low priority in a town of 1,100 in the Green Mountains that is still repairing roads, bridges and homes damaged as Irene concluded a deadly march up the coast, reaching Vermont as a tropical storm and dumping rains that cut several towns off from the outside world for days.
For all the pictures of covered bridges and homes turned into kindling by the angry floods, the scene at the cemetery was perhaps most shocking: a whole section washed away, bodies strewn about in the open air, caskets poking out of debris piles and glinting in the post-storm sun.
The day after the storm, Flewelling said, she started to get reports that the cemetery, situated where the normally tiny Nason Brook meets the White River, had washed out and that people were posting pictures on the Internet. There were rumors, never confirmed, of looting.
"We had exposed bodies and caskets and things lying all around here. I mean, they don't need to be taking jewelry or anything like that," she said. "I said, 'No, that is not going to happen anymore.'"
With state law enforcement access to the town cut off, Flewelling and the cemetery sexton started camping out at the entrance to keep the curious away and tell family members whether their loved ones' graves had been affected. She received between 400 and 500 calls.
First, they covered exposed remains. Locals were told not to touch anything. When the state medical examiner's office arrived, it was treated like a mass fatality event, and a special team was mobilized to help search for, recover and identify the remains, said Dr. Elizabeth Bundock, deputy chief medical examiner.
"There are 50 names in the involved area. Half of those were buried more than 50 years ago," Bundock said. "It's hard to know what to expect from a burial that's 50 or more years ago."
The experts used family memories, and in some cases DNA, to try to identify the remains. Family members were not asked to look at the actual remains.
Six weeks later, about half the remains have been recovered, but only half of those have been identified.
While rare, it's not unknown for flooding to disturb graves; hundreds were pulled out of the ground by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Mississippi, Louisiana and other parts of the South. But while a low water table in those places means some graves lie in aboveground vaults, it's not so common for a flash flood to do similar damage in an area where caskets are soundly interred.
Flewelling, who has lived in Rochester for 42 years, said she never imagined Woodlawn could be at risk from flooding. It's well above the river and survived two previous disasters unscathed -- floods in 1927 and the great East Coast hurricane of 1938.
The total cost of repairs, including the huge amounts of fill needed to rebuild the lost area, is close to $1 million, Flewelling estimates. The Rochester Cemetery Commission has an annual budget of about $14,000, she said, and a special fund has been set up.
"It's going to be a long, hard process," she said. "I expect when the spring floods come it's going to change some of the creek beds again and they may find some more people downstream."
Remains will probably turn up in the river for some time -- and each case will have to be treated as if it's a newly deceased body, to make sure no new crimes slip through the cracks, Bundock said.
It will be impossible to identify all the remains that were recovered because there's no way to match DNA from older graves, Flewelling said. At some point there will probably be a mass reburial, she said.
For Thompson, it was a huge relief when Bundock called to say her grandmother's remains had been positively identified after they were found downstream.
"I am at peace, I really am," Thompson said. "I am not worried some child will see them floating somewhere. That is my worst nightmare."
Even in cases where remains have been identified, the living face painful choices, including whether to hold a second funeral. Thompson said she's not interested in another ceremony but does want to see the cemetery restored.
"I want them back where they were. That was my dad and my mother's final home. And my grandmother lived with us forever, and so it's her home too," she said. "I want them back where they were supposed to be, if they can."