RALEIGH — Six months later, tornado-toppled trees and debris still dominate the landscape at three of Raleigh's oldest cemeteries.
It's a difficult sight for the maintenance crew that won an award from the city in 2009 for their respectful, immaculate care of the fragile old burial grounds.
"We take pride in how the cemeteries look, and if you look at them now with all the debris, it looks unkept," said Danny Morgan, city park operations supervisor. "There's not much you can do."
Six months after the tornado ripped up trees and damaged gravestones, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has finally given the green light for cleanup and restoration efforts to proceed at the Mount Hope, O'Rorke Catholic and City cemeteries. Tree removal work is expected to start in mid- to late November.
"Cleanup is complicated," said Jane Thurman, chairwoman of the Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation board. "You have debris intertwined with shards of broken historical monuments."
That sensitive process has been further slowed by state and federal regulations for the cleanup of historic sites. For the past six months, archaeologists from a firm in Tennessee have meticulously combed through debris and sifted dirt for artifacts. They mostly found casket handles and the pink Carnival glass memento bottles, Park Superintendent Wayne Schindler said. Human bone fragments were found in City Cemetery.
Morgan gets numerous calls each week asking when the cemeteries will reopen. Right now, the official answer is next summer. He has gotten complaints about the snail's pace of cleanup efforts, he said.
"We're just as ready to get it done and cleaned up as everybody else is, but there are processes and guidelines we have to follow since these are cemeteries and historic sites," Morgan said.
Friday was the deadline for tree removal proposals. After that work is complete, the city will solicit proposals to repair the 139 damaged monuments, Schindler said.
The destruction is worse than when Hurricane Fran roared through town in 1996, Schindler said. The damage then was limited to Mount Hope.
Cost estimates for the current cleanup are not yet available. The city's eligible costs can be reimbursed by the Public Assistance program as part of the presidential disaster declaration, according to the FEMA website.
FEMA foots 75 percent of the bill under the cost-share program, while the state fields the remaining 25 percent.
While the cleanup revs up, those with loved ones buried in the cemeteries can call ahead to be escorted to the site, Morgan said. Only about a dozen have done so in the past six months.
For now, maintenance crews are still mowing around the fallen trees and keeping an eye out for falling branches, leaving the open areas as manicured as possible until the heavy work begins.
"It's been hard to look at," Thurman said. "I think the community is disheartened by it, but we're moving forward now."