By Thomas Goldsmith and Rose Hoban

As the Neuse River overflowed its banks after Hurricane Matthew in October, three dozen caskets erupted from Goldsboro’s Elmwood Cemetery, creating an emotional, multifaceted dilemma that lingers months later.

The problem was significant enough to lawmakers that it merited mention in the $200 million recovery funding law the General Assembly passed in a special session on Dec. 15. “Caskets floated out of the saturated ground,” states item 10 of Section 2.1.(b) of the law.

photo shows walls uneven and decaying, fallen headstones
Repeated flooding in the past two decades, along with a high water table have meant walls shift, headstones tumble and, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, caskets float to the surface. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

State officials say that significant gaps remain in North Carolina’s practical and financial ability to respond to such events.

“This has been an Achilles’ heel for North Carolina in our state fatality management plan,” said Julie Casani, director of public health preparedness, for the Division of Public Health in the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Casani said that when necessary agencies and state departments work together well to address situations such as the one in Goldsboro, but the response remains piecemeal. “We don’t have a solid plan agreed to by all the partners. We have pieces of it.”

Timothy Irving, superintendent of Elmwood, a Goldsboro city cemetery, said last week that 18 bodies had been identified and buried again, while an equal number awaited identification and reburial. During a telephone interview, Irving described the inexorable progress of the flood waters that followed Matthew’s passage on Oct. 8.

A cemetery engulfed

“The storm came through on a Saturday and on Sunday we were in pretty good shape,” he said. “Monday came in and that’s where the flooding started; the cemetery was partially under water.

“By Tuesday, the cemetery was completely under water. The front gate is every bit of nine feet tall. You could just see the little ball that sits on top of each side of the columns.”

Shows a cemetery gate that's about 8' tall before reaching the finials.
At the height of the flooding following Hurricane Matthew, water reached the top of the gate posts, leaving only the round finials visible. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Elmwood is a long stone’s throw from the Neuse River as it passes through town, lying next to old railroad tracks and a light industrial district. An adjacent African-American neighborhood was also flooded. Most of those families have not yet been able to return.

“We had already had our fire department go out with boats and started pulling in caskets that had popped up. By Wednesday, we had pulled in all of the caskets that had popped up and put them in two refrigerated trailers,” Irving said.

That only half of the sets of remains have been reburied reveals the holes in North Carolina’s methods of dealing with these lingering effects of natural disasters. Even before Hurricane Floyd dislodged hundreds of caskets in North Carolina in 1999, officials had called for deeper burials and better methods of identifying and re-interring remains, but the system is still far from seamless.

Shows the door of a white building with a "condemned" sign on the door.
The Sheepfold Church of Jesus on Sunny South St. in Goldsboro remains closed and condemned, waiting repair post-Matthew. Sunny South St. is on of the small streets in a small neighborhood adjacent to the Elmwood Cemetery boundary, near the Neuse River. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

North Carolina has not followed the lead of other states that have set up their own Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, known as DMORTs.

“Our state has been saying for years that they want to get their own team together,” said Christopher Turnage, a Wayne County funeral director who has helped with the Elmwood Cemetery recovery.

A DMORT alliance of professionals can establish temporary morgue facilities, identify victims through dental records and other means, use forensic anthropology methods, and assist with reburial. In North Carolina state government, these and other tasks can fall through the cracks as people involved examine jurisdiction and funding sources.

State moves in to help

“We got the Goldsboro issue happening and people did go out, look at the caskets and try to identify,” the remains, said Casani, from the Division of Public Health. “Some of the caskets had been breached. Some of them hadn’t been.”

In recent years, funeral directors have been required to equip caskets with sealed tubes containing identifying information. “It’s because of all these issues that keep coming up with caskets that get moved or broken, after a flood or things like that,” Casani said.

At Elmwood Cemetery, a variety of issues confronted Irving and others as they worked to identify and rebury bodies. Some cases were solved quickly, leading to resolutions for half the bodies, but tough situations remain.

“In the ‘80s, most of them didn’t have any tubes on there, so there was no way to identify them without opening the caskets,” Irving said. “Some of them, I don’t know if they had taken on some water in Floyd in ‘99, but they were rusted out. The little key that you try to turn wasn’t turning and we couldn’t get any of those caskets open.

“I’m thinking DNA is going to be our only recourse for identifying the majority of those caskets. We’ve had three family members come in so I can get DNA from three families and we can match it up with those three bodies,” he said. “We are trying to set that up: Who can we actually get to come in to help us with that? We are still wrestling with that now.”

As state DHHS looked into Elmwood’s problems, Goldsboro’s emergency services department took on significant responsibilities. But some remaining tasks exceeded the abilities and resources of any of the state and local agencies involved.

“The other part of it was, how far do we go?,” Casani said. “Do we go so far as to open all the caskets, get DNA sampling, take pictures, do X-rays? It’s very expensive. I don’t mean to put it in terms of dollars, but it’s very expensive, very labor intensive.”

Irving said the families who agreed to offer DNA samples have been very understanding.

“They realize it was an act of God, that there was nothing that the city could have done,” he said.

Last week, state officials had decided on what procedures to follow or levels of effort to exert before the situation is resolved.

“The most dignified way possible”

“There was a lot of discussion back and forth about who owns this,” Casani said. “I don’t mean this to be disrespectful, but at what point does this become property and who is responsible for the property?”

Shows photo taken through a fence, the headstone has the name "Guess" on it.
The name on this grave is “Guess” but that’s also what cemetery officials are faced with doing in the absence of information about the bodies in exhumed caskets. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

In the absence of positive identification, it’s hard to know which casket to put in which gravesite.

“At what point do we say, ’OK, we’ve done the best we can, we’ll do a mass burial, or we’ll do something,’ and take the best shot at it,” Casani said.

After conversations among departments, North Carolina has reached out for help to Florida, which maintains an active DMORT team. It can operate in several states, including North Carolina, under federal supervision.

However, in Goldsboro last week, cemetery superintendent Timothy Irving still didn’t know where to turn for assistance. He remained determined to make things right for the bodies that had been entrusted to Elmwood Cemetery for eternal rest.

“I know who goes in every space; it’s just identifying the caskets,” he said. “We’re not going to put anybody back where they do not belong. We are taking care of those caskets in the most dignified way possible.”

What’s a DMORT?

DMORTs, or Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams, are organized under the National Disaster Medical System to identify victims and bury bodies following disasters.

“DMORTs are composed of private citizens, each with a particular field of expertise, who are activated in the event of a disaster … When personnel are activated, licensure and certification is recognized by all states, and the personnel are compensated for their duty time by the federal government as a intermittent federal employee. During an emergency response, DMORTs work under the guidance of local authorities by providing technical assistance and personnel to identify and process deceased victims.”

Source: US Department of Health and Human Services


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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...

One reply on “Goldsboro Caskets Unearthed by Matthew Reveal NC ‘Achilles’ Heel’”

  1. Good article. I hope this spurs completion of a comprehensive plan. My heart goes out to those that were affected. I cannot imagine what the families are feeling as they work to get their beloved back to their final resting place.

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