Despite damage from superstorm Sandy to cemetery land exposing human remains on Hart Island, repairs won’t begin for two years — a situation that shocks those concerned about the future of the nation’s largest public burial ground.
“That there is active erosion and skeletal remains washing into Long Island Sound is unacceptable to most New Yorkers,” said Melinda Hunt, who heads the nonprofit The Hart Island Project. She said there was an urgency for action because the shorelines of both Hart and Rikers Island have been deemed by city experts to be increasingly vulnerable to damage from future storms.
She has worked over the years to get greater public access to burial information on the island, which is the cemetery to more than a million persons since it opened as a “potter’s field” after the Civil War.
“This is just another example of our neglect of one million New Yorkers for whom Hart Island is their final resting place,” said City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) who has been pushing to make Hart Island a park. “It is just horrifying to think of bodies being disinterred because of flooding on a low-lying island. It’s hard to think of how anyone would feel if loved ones are exposed to the elements that way.”
The Department of Correction said the city hoped to put out bids for repairs to Hart Island this summer, with construction “anticipated to start in January 2020.”
According to a report prepared by the city after Sandy for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the storm surge in October 2012 caused “significant damage” to the shoreline and sea walls of the island, which sits in Long Island Sound between City Island and Sands Point.
In 2015 some $13.2 million in sea walls funding was allocated for the Long Island Sound to the Department of Correction, which has Rikers Island prisoners detailed to do burials on the island. The project was delayed in part because New York State had to do environmental and history reviews as the island is a historic landmark.
A study by two forensic anthropologists at the city medical examiner’s office about nine months after Sandy found human remains in the eroded island cliff banks at numerous locations.
“Disarticulated bones were observed on the shore line and along the cliff bank,” the report stated, adding that two exposed burials were observed actively eroding. Parts of skulls and large bones were found as well, they reported.
The anthropologists said the bones appeared to have been buried more than 50 years ago. In cases of erosion, DOC officials said, the medical examiner is called and the remains collected so they can eventually be reinterred.
Hunt and her organization believe the city should try and expedite the work because Hart Island remains vulnerable to more severe storms. “We identified the problem after Sandy,” Levine said of the erosion. “We are five years [after Sandy] and still two years away from start of work. It is totally unacceptable.”
“We are losing history,” Hunt said. “Every cemetery is part of New York City history and American history and if you let it wash away you are losing history.”
Levine said he and colleagues in the council will reintroduce a bill to put Hart Island under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department for more accessibility.
“If we had greater public access there would be greater public appreciation of what Hart Island is,” Levine said.