Ida struck the Ironton cemetery scattering the caskets around town – they are still there.
With little to do living in the country, Kornell Davis remembers running through Ironton’s cemetery while growing up on lower Plaquemines Parish’s rural west bank. Shaded by old oak trees, the graveyard was lined with tombs stacked upon one another, the caskets inside holding families whose lineage dated back more than a century. When Hurricane Ida blew through Louisiana, it sent more than 10 feet of water over the feeble levees west of Ironton, which lies outside of the massive levee that protects metro New Orleans. The force and volume dislodged dozens of those tombs and caskets, scattering them across the 200-year-old community into yards and underneath houses. Two caskets holding a father and daughter settled together next to the road nearly three blocks from the cemetery. Farther still, another deep blue casket rested against the base of the Mississippi River levee. “You can see where the tomb cracked and the casket shot out,” Davis said, describing a scene that persists three weeks after the Category 4 storm. In some instances, Davis said, the remains of the loved ones lying within dislodged and broken caskets have been visible.nola.com
Residents maintain that the local government has not helped them. This is not something that they, personally, can fix.
Residents say little has been done to help with recovery, let alone addressing the tombs and caskets, many of them made by the families of the interred, that were carried off by the floodwaters. Last week, unsure when the parish government would address it, Davis and several other residents began clearing Ironton’s main roads themselves to allow the town’s 52 families to access their properties. As that effort began, Parish President Kirk Lepine visited, flanked by the National Guard, to start clearing marsh grass, Davis said. But that effort quickly ended, leaving residents to continue their own clean up. “We really feel like we’re being forgotten,” said Rev. Haywood Johnson, an Ironton native who leads the local church. And it’s not the first time.
What is more egregious is that this is an all-black population initially founded by freed slaves.
Settled by enslaved people freed from the St. Rosalie Plantation, Ironton remains an all-Black community, fighting to live on the land of their ancestors. It wasn’t until 1980 that the community received water service, and they’ve struggled to limit the burden of air pollution on their area. In 2013, residents enlisted environmental activists to help them fight a coal terminal proposed about a half mile to the north, and they prevailed. Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005, residents have also pushed for an upgraded levee system, similar to those that protect communities to the north and south. Instead, Ironton makes due with a 15-mile stretch that ranges from 3 to 6 feet high. Plans to build up the levees have been in the works for years but have yet to come to fruition. To Johnson, his hometown’s disaster can be traced to years of institutional neglect, and the displaced graves are bringing critical attention to a problem he wants witnessed by a wider audience. “I really don’t think we’re a priority,” said the Saint Paul Missionary Baptist pastor. “Sometimes God got to use the dead to make the living see what’s going on.”
The problem, from the Plaquemains Parish view, is a need to identify the bodies so that there is a true accounting of who is buried where.
But Lepine said returning the tombs and caskets to their resting place is his top priority, delayed as he waits on help from the state to identify the dead. “It’s very important to me that these people get a dignified placement, but we want to make sure we identify those people and get that taken care of,” he said. Lepine said the parish held a public meeting with Ironton and West Pointe-a-la-Hache residents about recovery efforts on Sept. 11, two weeks after Ida. He said the parish plans to do a more extensive clean up of properties once it is authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Authority. Without FEMA’s approval, he said, the parish won’t be reimbursed for their efforts. In the meantime, he’s gathering permission from residents to enter their property when the time comes. “We have done everything we can and we will do even more,” Lepinie said. “They’ve been here for over 200 years; they’re very important to Plaquemines Parish.”
The levee is the prime desire of the local residents but that is not in the picture yet.
The levee, Lepine said, is out of the parish’s hands. Managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the president said the project has been in the works since he entered office is expected to go out to bid soon. “We don’t have the funds to rebuild that levee,” he said. “The Corps does.” Ironton resident Jeremy Salvant and his girlfriend aren’t waiting for a new levee, though. In two weeks, they’re relocating to San Antonio after Ida disrupted their plans to build a larger trailer on their lot. Surrounded by tangled piles of marsh grass, Salvant’s current three-bedroom trailer leaned against the Mississippi River levee, tilting after it floated off its blocks during the flood. Unable to open its doors, he simply tore the soft, soggy material away from its hinges as he searched for family photographs.
To go or to stay, this is also a question for the residents.
Unsure about the move at first, the Ironton native is now excited for the move. “I can’t do this again,” he said. But for Johnson, leaving isn’t the answer. The pastor expects most people rebuild — and hopefully elevate — alongside the church. “My responsibility is to get the church where it needs to be,” he said. “People will come because the church is the beacon of the community.”
I you want to heklp, donations are been accepted and to find out how, please contact Rev. Haywood Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a problem many in the state are facing, especially for those still without power.