Local News

Bureaucracy buries tornado cleanup at historic Raleigh cemeteries

Posted September 12, 2011 5:23 p.m. EDT

— Five months after a tornado uprooted trees in three historic cemeteries near downtown Raleigh, the city is still awaiting approval to clean up the damage, and the delay is frustrating relatives of people buried there.

Trees remain down at City Cemetery, the oldest public cemetery, where Raleigh's founding fathers and legislators are buried, O'Rorke Cemetery, which dates to 1858, and Mount Hope Cemetery, a historic African-American graveyard.

Clarence Lightner, Raleigh's first black mayor, is buried at Mount Hope, and his son had to remove pieces of bark from a large tree that still lies atop the grave marker so he could read it.

"It's frustrating to see a historic cemetery of this nature still in this condition (five) months after the storm. It's really, really not only frustrating, but it's disrespectful," Bruce Lightner said Monday. "We can do better than this."

For Raleigh to be reimbursed for cleaning up the cemeteries, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state preservation rules required an archaeological survey be completed.

"We could not just rush in and clean the cemeteries up, remove the tree debris, do necessary tree work and restore the cemeteries because they are historic properties," said Wayne Schindler, superintendent of Raleigh's Parks Department.

The survey documented and collected tiny human remains, metal coffin handles and other items unearthed by the trees, Schindler said. FEMA and state preservation officials had have the report for more than two weeks but haven't yet approved any cleanup.

FEMA officials couldn't be reached Monday for comment.

Because of safety concerns, the three cemeteries remain locked, but Schindler said relatives can call the office of any of the cemeteries to arrange an escorted visit to a specific grave.

"This is not FEMA property. This is city of Raleigh property, and I kind of have a feeling that FEMA is being used as a scapegoat," Lightner said. "The city has money, or should have money in their budget, to clean up this cemetery by now and then be reimbursed by FEMA."

Raleigh City Councilman Eugene Weeks said the government should offer the city a waiver so it can start the cleanup without further delay.

"Something needs to be done now, not FEMA telling us when we can do it," Weeks said. "Just say, 'Go ahead and do it, and we will reimburse you.'"