Coffins Still Missing 18 Months After Hurricane Rita

Eighteen months after Hurricane Rita, Howard and Doris Taliaferro say the bodies of family members still have not been recovered after the storm washed their coffins away from their graves in Cameron Parish.

Doris' daughter, Tammy, and first husband, Willie, were in St. Eugene Cemetery in Grand Chenier.

When Rita hit, the Taliaferros, who live in Chandler, Texas, contacted FEMA to describe the coffins, items that had been placed in the coffins and their deceased family members' clothing.

Their descriptions didn't fit the approximately 320 bodies that were recovered and identified. Federal government money funded an active search until March 2006, when the funding stopped.

"We just want to find them," Howard Taliaferro said. "We want to know where the heck our people are."

The couple then heard news that some bodies had been buried that could not be identified.

"We think there's something wrong, but we can't put our finger on it," Howard said. "We can't get answers."

The government-paid search ended because it became harder and harder to find bodies. Sometimes, two weeks would go by without a coffin turning up, said Zeb Johnson of Johnson Funeral Home in Lake Charles.

The searches cost between $6,000 and $8,000 a day. All but 35 to 40 of the lost coffins from Cameron Parish were found and out of those that were found, close to 80 percent of the dead were identified, Johnson said. Those reburied without names on their tombstones were impossible to identify, he said.

Despite the lack of government funding, a search for those still missing continues, Johnson said. Volunteers are trekking down to Cameron Parish to continue the search, and people who are engaged in rebuilding work in the area are asked to report any coffins they find.

"The only way to positively search is to put people in the air and in boots on the ground, and search one square foot at a time," Johnson said. "With unlimited resources, we might recover half of the ones left, but some might never be recovered."

But Johnson said he wants to find every missing coffin.

"The most rewarding thing for me is telling a family that we've found their loved one, and I hope that's what we can do with the remaining bodies," Johnson said.