DENHAM SPRINGS, LA (WAFB) - When the flood waters receded in Denham Springs, Maria Bragg immediately went to check on her son. He, along with generations of her family, was laid to rest at Plainview Cemetery. What she found, sank her heart. Like her home, flood waters ravaged the cemetery. Plots were full of water. Caskets were upended and scattered like dominoes.
"I was at a loss when I came out here and seen all the graves upside down, turned up. I was at a loss," said Bragg.
The 2016 flood washed out more than 800 grave sites statewide. Plainview was one of the most damaged sites. According to officials, 270 bodies and headstones were displaced, including Bragg's son.
It fell to cemetery recovery consultant Arbie Goings to help restore these final resting places. The former funeral director is under contract with the Louisiana Health Department and works with a team of people to repair the flood damaged sites. He explained the biggest challenge is identifying disinterred remains.
A state law established after Hurricane Katrina requires funeral homes to include an identifying tag with each casket. However, many of those buried in Plainview were buried prior to the 2006 law.
Goings says around 20 bodies are still unidentified or unclaimed by relatives. He fears their relatives may no longer be in the Denham Springs area.
Volunteers and the LSU Face's lab are helping with the monumental task.
"They would actually examine everything inside that casket, from the actual body itself to clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses, anything that could be in that casket that could match what a family is telling us," said Goings.
The work is done on site, in the privacy of tents outfitted for the task. Once identified, crews can rebury the body. The cemetery and the exam sites are being kept under lock and key while the work continues.
Goings said the process is slow and tedious and made harder by constant rain and now heat. However, he said his mission is driven by something simple.
"We owe it to them," said Goings.
Nearly a year after she first saw her son's empty plot, Bragg got a call she had been waiting for. Goings and his team had laid her son back to rest.
"I had a lot of long nights thinking about it. I can rest a bit easier now," said Bragg.
Goings said if you believe a loved one's gravesite may be impacted by flooding, to contact your local parish office of emergency preparedness for help.