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In La., Families Still Searching For Storm-Scattered Remains

Lionel Alverez stands at a family tomb in Plaquemines Parish, La. Hurricane Isaac's storm surge split the double-decker tomb in half, leaving his aunt's and sister's caskets on the bottom but washing away his mother's, which was on top.

Since Hurricane Isaac, some people have gone to great lengths to ensure their loved ones' tombs are never lost.

Lionel Alverez is in the Promised Land Cemetery again, taking inventory. He has been coming to this cemetery in Plaquemines Parish, La., all his life. The graveyard is hemmed in between the Mississippi River and the marsh on a lonely stretch of highway.

Promised Land has been the final resting place for the Alverezes for generations. Alverez, 61, points out several graves, one by one. "Albert Alverez. Huey Alverez and Harold Alverez. My brother Allen is near the rear, back there."

Lionel's mother, Leola Alverez, wanted to be entombed here as well. She died four years ago at age 99.

"Her final resting place was very special to her," Alverez says.

The problem is, very little is final about being buried in Plaquemines, which straddles the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In August, Hurricane Isaac's 12-foot storm surge plowed through Promised Land and other cemeteries, ripping tombs off their foundations and scattering the remains of 194 people.

Months later, 60 remain unidentified. And at least one, Leola Alverez, is missing. The water appears to have sheared her concrete vault in half.

Mary Manhein, director of the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing People, was one of the first officials on the scene last year.

"They had a lot of vaults that had been disrupted," Manhein says. "Vaults on top of vaults. Remains crushed. Remains out of the vault. Remains down the road somewhere, across the street, across the highway -- all over the place."

Manhein has learned a thing or two about the dead, including this: Louisiana's famous above-ground tombs don't sink.

"They float. They literally float. The water -- it's amazing what water can do," she says.

The tombs are necessary in south Louisiana, where some low-lying areas are at, or below, sea level. Dig a few feet down, and a grave fills with water.

But the above-ground system can pose problems during a storm. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, scattered the tombs of more than a thousand people. Most would never be identified. One tomb floated 33 miles. But in Plaquemines Parish, Isaac was worse.

"If the water had been much higher, if the storm surge had been much higher, many of those vaults and tombs would have gone right down the river, right down the Mississippi River," Manhein says. "And they never would have been seen again."

Manhein began identifying the remains. With some, it was easy. There was a name tucked inside the casket. But others proved more difficult.

"They had vaults where there was nothing in them. So where in the world did the person in the casket go?"

That was certainly the question in the case of Ethel Fitte, who died last summer. For months after Isaac, Roland Phillips, an oysterman, couldn't find his mother-in-law anywhere and was about ready to give up.

"We had the hole. We was going to build a monument. That way we could know that was her spot; she was buried right next to her husband," he says.

But late last fall, a helicopter pilot spotted an object, white and rectangular, beached like a boat in the marsh. A tomb -- Ethel perhaps.

"Sure enough, that was her. It was about a little better than 2 miles, almost 3 miles, from the cemetery," Phillips says.

Others, though, are less fortunate.

On a recent afternoon, John Vickers, a funeral director in nearby St. Bernard's Parish, threads his way to the back of Promised Land Cemetery. The unidentified have been placed here in replacement tombs. No names, just numbers.

"The problem is, you might be dealing with the next of kin being grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren," says Vickers, who has been assisting Plaquemines Parish with the identification effort. "They don't even know grandfather, grandmother is missing. They don't even remember 'em."

Of course, that's not the case with Lionel Alverez. Back at the cemetery, he points out his aunt's and sister's graves. "They are in place, and they did not move," he says.

And he can't believe that his mother, Leola, isn't here with them. He hopes there has been some mistake -- that she's in one of the numbered tombs, perhaps, or somewhere else nearby. But he has no idea where to begin looking for her casket.

"You can see how far the wooded area goes back here. It goes for miles and miles and miles. It can be anywhere, if it's not here. She can be anywhere," he says.

Like in the forest, in the marsh or down some lonesome bayou or lagoon. Surely, Leola Alverez is out there somewhere. But just where is anyone's guess.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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