Advocates Claim Mass Graves Pose Risk, But Officials Dispute Recent Problems

NEW YORK (CBS New York) — There have been more than a million people buried in the mass graves on Hart Island since 1860s, but since the damage of Hurricane Sandy, that’s become a gruesome problem.

“My baby was buried right near the water,” Dr. Laurie Grant from the Hart Island Project told CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge. “The babies are buried in small coffins, so there’s about five on top of each other.”

Grant’s child was stillborn in 1993, and her daughter is one of more than a million people laid to rest in the country’s largest cemetery. It takes months to schedule a visit there — Grant’s last trip was in 2013, a year after Sandy tore up the seawall, leaving human remains littered along the shoreline.

Advocates say it will only get worse, but city officials disagree on the scope of the problem.

“The cliffs of Hart Island are sort of exposed and bones are washing up on Long Island Sound – that hasn’t been repaired yet,” said Melinda Hunt, the founding director of the Hart Island Project which identified more than 67,000 people buried there.

“This happened once in 2012, after one of the biggest hurricanes hit New York City and it has not happened since,” said Peter Thorne, deputy commissioner of public information for the New York City Department of Correction.

Most of the problem is reportedly in the northern shore of Hart Island where there is a steep bank heavily damaged by the 2012 storm.

“If you are in Orchard Beach, which has lots and lots of New Yorkers, it’s what you are looking at directly,” said Hunt. “That’s where are bones are washing up into the sound.”

“The exposed remains were in one of the oldest burial sections of the island, and they were quickly reburied in a different part of the island that was not affected by the storm,” said Thorne.

Hunt’s care for the island, its dead and their surviving families led her to create a database for tracking the names of the dead on the island almost 30 years ago. She and some local officials want the city Parks Department to take over maintenance of the island, which is run by the Department of Correction. They currently use inmates from Rikers Island to bury the dead, but advocates say the deceased deserve better.

“People buried on Hard Island are from the poorest, the sickest and the most neglected and almost forgotten members of our society and it’s an indignity that having suffered in life now they’re suffering in death,” Councilman Mark Levine (D-7th) said.

The Medical Examiner’s Office is in charge of collecting the remains so they can be reinterred, something that provides a small sense of comfort to relatives.

“I would like it to be kept up I would like it to be a place where when people visit it’s not depressing,” Dr. Grant said.

Officials say FEMA gave the city $13.2 million in 2015 to use towards repairs. A design firm was hired in 2016 and bid for contractors are in progress. Work is expected to begin in 2020 and take about a year and a half to complete.

Advocates are also pushing to make Hart Island a park, so it’s more accessible to visitors.