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‘It feels like he’s free now’ - Mother receives help reburying son after vault destroyed by Ida

Published: Nov. 17, 2021 at 11:37 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Louise Callahan had no idea Hurricane Ida would cause this much heartbreak for her family.

Callahan is just one of the hundreds of people whose loved ones’ tombs or caskets were either destroyed or displaced when the storm swept through the state in August 2021.

Callahan originally came to WAFB in October after she discovered her son’s gravesite was destroyed by the storm.

Her son, John Winston Jr., was buried at the Helping Hands cemetery in St. Tammany Parish. She said a tree fell and crushed her son’s burial vault as a result of Ida but she didn’t find out until four weeks later thanks to a call from a family friend.

Callahan said the cemetery caretakers never notified her and she tried on multiple occasions to get in contact with someone but came up empty.

The damage was so extensive that the only thing that was protecting the casket was a blue tarp and the debris from the shattered vault to hold it down.

“I got a call saying it’s cracked,” said Callahan. “I thought it was a little crack, and I get here, and this is what I see. I see his casket.”

“I thought it was an exaggeration, to be honest,” said Angel Rogers, Callahan’s daughter. “I thought the story was fluff and the tomb was cracked and I’m thinking it was just a small crack. I was mortified.”

Callahan said the ordeal reopened old wounds surrounding her son.

RELATED: Baton Rouge mother outraged after cemetery failed to notify her that son’s burial vault was destroyed

Winston went missing in 2010 but his remains were found four years later in January 2014 in an abandoned home in the Slidell area. His murder remains unsolved.

“It was tough for me, tough for me, to see my mom in that pain. It hurts when you can’t take it away. You can’t take it away,” added Rogers.

After the initial story, WAFB received a call from the Office of the Louisiana Attorney General about a little-known group designed to help people and families like Callahan.

The Louisiana Cemetery Response Task Force was created in 2018 following the destruction of the 2016 flood. Its goal is to help these families rebury their loved ones by offering state and federal resources.

“This is the goal that we’re here for,” said Ryan Seidemann, chairman of the Louisiana Cemetery Response Task Force. “So, this is a success story.”

Seidemann added the money the task force uses comes from FEMA. He also said they were able to respond to Callahan as quickly as they did because it was an isolated incident at that cemetery.

Seidemann said he has field crews that are still working in the Ironton and Lafitte areas where dozens of caskets were displaced.

“Part of our charge is to do the work to figure out who those folks are, work with their loved ones to get the FEMA funding so the loved ones won’t have to come out of pocket. That’s what we did with Ms. Callahan,” explained Seidemann.

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, Winston’s body was exhumed and moved to the Port Hudson Cemetery in Zachary.

“I thank God he’s not in that element anymore. It feels like he’s free now. He’s not throwed away anymore,” said Callahan.

“It wasn’t like when we went down there that he was going to jump out of that vault and say, ‘April Fools,’ because that’s something he would’ve done. That definitely wasn’t going to happen. So, just coming to terms with he’s finally able to rest in a peaceful place … I’m ok with that,” added Rogers.

Family members can finally turn the page in this drawn-out saga but there’s still one more chapter they’re hoping to close.

“I pray to God before I leave here that I find out who killed my son. I would like to know that but it’s probably not meant for me to know right now but I pray one day I find out who did it,” explained Callahan.

If you find a casket out of place, you can contact the task force at 225-937-5707 or email it at cemeterytaskforce@ag.louisiana.gov.

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