BELLE ROSE — Nearly three months after floodwaters caused vaults to break apart and set two caskets adrift at a small cemetery, a project is underway to try to make sure that kind of flooding never happens again.
“No one should have to bury someone twice,” said Assumption Parish Police Juror Henry Dupre, who is spearheading a project to try to stop future flooding at the Rose Hill St. James Cemetery.
The cemetery, which belongs to two congregations, Belle Rose Baptist Church and St. James United Methodist Church, is in a low-lying area on La. 998, a narrow two-lane road off La. 1 in Belle Rose.
Farmland surrounding the cemetery drains into it even during moderate rain showers, say those who live in the Belle Rose community.
But when 10 inches of rain fell within a span of several hours on May 29, the cemetery was under water. A nearby, unused and elevated railroad track that’s several feet higher than the cemetery served as a wall, keeping the water in the graveyard.
The track, while it protected homes on the other side of it, pooled water in the cemetery until it covered vaults and disturbed graves.
Residents said La. 998 and the cemetery had flooded before, but the waters had never been as high as they were on that May day.
“It was solid. It was a lake,” Dupre said of the water. “Let’s hope it was a freak of nature.”
With the help of the Union Pacific railroad, the Police Jury this summer removed about 20 feet of the unused rail line that runs north and south next to the cemetery, clearing the way for a drainage canal that will run east and west behind the cemetery.
It’s expected the new canal will divert runoff from more than 100 acres of farmland north of the cemetery, away from a 60-inch culvert near the cemetery, to another canal, Dupre said.
Then, through various waterways, rainwater ultimately will end up in Lake Verret near Pierre Part in Assumption Parish.
Two community meetings have been held to inform area residents of the project, Dupre said, and plans call for the work to be completed some time in September.
“We’ve met with the parish and the community to help implement their plan, which includes allowing them to cross our right-of-way with their planned canal,” said Jeff DeGraff, a spokesman with Union Pacific Railroad.
“We look forward to continuing our cooperation with them as they resolve this issue,” DeGraff said.
Mike Daigle, president of Savoie Industries, a sugar cane mill that owns and leases farmland for sugar cane, said the Union Pacific rail line that goes through the area hasn’t been in use in the decade since Daigle’s company stopped using the railroad to ship molasses.
Daigle said he’s talked to Union Pacific for several years about the possibility of all of the track being removed. The elevated track means “the water stays in the fields longer” and “can rot the roots of the sugar cane.”
The May storm also pummeled Rose Hill Baptist Church, which is just down the street from the Rose Hill St. James Cemetery, leaving about 7 inches of water in the sanctuary, said the Rev. Rodney Dugas, pastor of the church.
Members of the congregation are continuing to repair the building, replacing baseboards and Sheetrock.
The church has been holding worship services at Belle Rose Primary School, but funeral services are still held at the church, something that is important to family members, Dugas said.
The damage to the cemetery was a “very tragic, very touching” event to the families whose loved ones are buried there, he said.
Dugas said he’s encouraged by the work the Police Jury is doing to forestall another flood.
“I have to be hopeful until I see otherwise,” Dugas said.