Sunday August 26, 2012

ROCHESTER, Vt. -- Two dozen sets of human remains washed out of the ground by the remnants of Hurricane Irene sit at the edge of Rochester's Woodlawn Ceme tery, awaiting the work that will return them to the earth.

In locked concrete vaults impervious to the elements, the remains have been at the base of a wooded hill since they were collected from the open air after Irene hit Aug. 28, 2011, and turned the tiny Nason Brook into a raging river, digging into the bank at the back of the cemetery and washing out 50 graves.

More than two dozen sets of remains are still missing, washed downstream into the White River.

Sue Flewelling, of the Roches ter Cemetery, is determined to see remains reinterred as close as possible to where they were first buried. The town is waiting on bids from contractors who will finish closing the gaping hole left by Irene, allowing the vaults to be reburied.

"If we're lucky, we can get the ones that we have reinterred by the end of October," Flewelling said.

She still doesn't know how much it will cost to repair the cemetery. The town is expected to award a contract for the repairs within the next few days. Work is supposed to be done by Oct. 1.

The Federal Emergency Man agement Agency is expected to help pay the cost of the repairs, but officials still don't know how much.

"I'm sorry the anniversary is here and I don't have any answers still," Flewelling said.

Rochester, a Vermont mountain town of about 1,100, was among the communities hardest hit by Irene.


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Roads leading to it washed out, leaving residents cut off from the outside world for days.

The first bodies were buried in the cemetery two centuries ago. The cemetery, perched well above the White River, which drains a broad swath of central Vermont, survived earlier storms unscathed.

But Irene was different. The brook ripped into the bank and immediately after the storm, caskets and body parts littered the area. Of the remains that were recovered, only about half were identified immediately. Since the office of the Vermont Medical Examiner helped coordinate DNA testing, that has led to the identification of five additional sets of remains.

It's unlikely the oldest remains unearthed from the cemetery -- estimated to have been buried more than 50 years ago -- will ever be identified, and three sets of ashes will never be recovered. And the missing remains still lie somewhere, scattered by the river. It's possible body parts will be discovered for some time to come.

Much of the hole left by Irene was filled with material cleaned out of other areas. The last 6 feet, where the vaults will be reburied, need to be properly engineered with quality, compacted fill.

There are plans to rebury any remains that can never be identified under a single marker, Flewelling said. She had hoped to have that ready by the anniversary of the storm.

Now she's hoping for Mem orial Day.