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Storms, tides unearth grave sites
LEEVILLE, La. — As a young adult, Kathleen Cheramie visited her grandmother's grave in a tree-lined cemetery where white concrete crosses dotted a plot of lush green grass just off Louisiana Highway 1.
Now, the cemetery in Leeville is a skeleton of its former self. The few trees still standing have been killed by saltwater intruding from the Gulf. Their leafless branches are suspended above marsh grass left brown and soggy from saltwater creeping up from beneath the graves.
"It was a beautiful place to visit," said Ms. Cheramie, 67, who lives in nearby Golden Meadow. "It hurts to see it now."
Ms. Cheramie's small family graveyard is among at least two dozen cemeteries across the southeast Louisiana coast that are rapidly sinking or washing away because of erosion and subsidence accelerated by the tropical punch of storms such as Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike, Lee and Isaac.
Local residents say 11 cemeteries in Jefferson Parish have repeatedly flooded since Hurricane Katrina. In Lafourche, Terrebonne and Plaquemines parishes, more than a dozen others have succumbed to tidal surge. Some have more than 300 gravesites.
Officials say not much can be done to save the cemeteries or the sinking communities that surround them, though some towns have tried pouring concrete slabs to build up the burial sites and hold headstones in place. They've also anchored above-ground caskets to the slabs to keep them from floating off.
"When I was a kid, you didn't see graves floating away and going under water," said Timothy Kerner, 53, mayor of the fishing town of Jean Lafitte, where schools, restaurants and homes have flooded at least four times in the past seven years.
Mr. Kerner said all 11 cemeteries in the area were under water during Hurricane Isaac, which struck Louisiana in August. Although many caskets had been anchored to concrete slabs, dozens still floated away, finding new resting places under and between houses.
In some cases, human remains became separated from the caskets.
"It's horrible," said Mr. Kerner, shaking his head as he flipped through photographs taken as officials recovered the caskets and remains. "It's sad, and it would be sad in any circumstance, but in this case you have families that have been here for 300 years, for generation after generation."
Along the Louisiana coast, towns like Jean Lafitte watch the Gulf march closer each day, threatening wildlife habitats and their way of life.
Coastal Louisiana has lost about 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s as canals dug for oil exploration allowed salty water to intrude into marshes and a succession of powerful hurricanes sucked marsh muck that protects populated areas out into the Gulf.
South Lafourche Levee District General Manager Windell Curole, who also serves on the state's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, said saltwater from the Gulf is causing a crippling subsidence problem.
"We did not bury people in marshes," Mr. Curole said. "We buried them on high ground. This was high ground, and now it's subsided to the point of being wetlands and open water."
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