ROCHESTER, Vt. — Loose headstones are scattered along the edge of Rochester’s main cemetery, months after it was torn apart by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Irene, and 25 sets of remains are missing, scattered down the White River, where anglers or others walking along the banks are coming out to enjoy the spring.
Rochester was one of the towns in Vermont hardest hit by Irene last August. For days, road access in and out was cut, as was electricity and telephone service. In the cemetery, the culvert across a brook between old and new sections plugged, and when it gave way, the normally tiny brook rushed through the grounds. Fifty-two sets of remains were washed downstream, some buried a couple of years ago, others 50 years ago or more.
Some were recovered last fall. One of the last was found five miles downstream, so there’s no telling how far the still-missing remains could have been carried by the river, which runs about 45 miles from Rochester to White River Junction, where it empties into the Connecticut River.
Now, the town is grappling with how to pay for cemetery repairs and reburial of the remains, and a concern brought about by time: The spring temperatures will bring more people outside, and it could unearth some of the missing remains.
Saturday marked the opening of trout season in Vermont, and, the warm weather will also draw the curious, said Sue Flewelling, the head of the Rochester Cemetery Commission. She is overseeing the repairs to the two-century-old cemetery.
“They’ll be walking along the stream banks to see what’s in these nests of rubble, roots and treetops and stuff like that, you drive along the road you see all kinds of it,” Flewelling said. “It’s like, ‘What’s really in there?”’
State police Lt. William Jennings said he wouldn’t be surprised if anyone found body parts, adding that it’s happened before.
If remains are found, police will investigate, Jennings said. If they’re from the cemetery, the state medical examiner’s office will try to identify them for reburial.
Rochester is a town of about 1,100 tucked between two mountain ranges along the spine of the Green Mountains. Since the founding of its cemetery on the side of a hill well above the White River nearly two centuries ago, it weathered unscathed, storm after storm, including through Vermont’s greatest natural disaster before Irene, the flood of 1927.
But Irene was different. Immediately after the storm, caskets and body parts littered the area. The medical examiner’s office treated it as a mass casualty.
Two dozen sets of remains were found and await reburial. Family members helped identify some, and others were identified with DNA. But it’s unlikely the oldest remains in the cemetery will ever be identified, and three sets of cremated ashes will never be recovered.
Flewelling said she hopes to rebury the unidentified remains together below a new monument to the storm that devastated the town and the cemetery.
Repairs have begun at the cemetery, but much more is needed. Flewelling is hoping to resume routine burials after May 1, but vehicles still can’t be driven into the new section of the cemetery because a bridge has not been installed to replace the culvert during Irene.
She still hasn’t figured out how much it will cost to repair the cemetery. But what had loomed as the greatest expense, that of the fill itself and the trucks and heavy equipment needed to collect it and then spread it, is being donated by people and communities that are scraping silt and gravel deposited by the floodwaters from farm and other fields for miles around.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is expected to help with the expenses, though how much remains unknown. After that it’ll be up to the town, which is still trying to cope with other Irene repair costs.
“We’re down on the list,” Flewelling said. “I mean there are people without homes and businesses and stuff like that and we are just about rock bottom on the list. So what can you say?”