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The historic Wilmington cemetery, opened in 1857, sustained more than 200 downed trees and 87 damaged gravestones or monuments from the hurricane
WILMINGTON – Just days after Hurricane Florence, Eric Kozen ventured into New Hanover County with a mission and only a few hours to complete it or risk being trapped by floodwater.
The Burgaw resident was heading to Oakdale Cemetery, where he is the executive director, to get eyes on how the historic Wilmington site had fared during the vicious hurricane.
But making the trip was going to be dicey. Interstate 40 was impassable and U.S. 421, while still accessible, was quickly being breached by the rising floodwaters that would completely wash away a portion within days.
“I told my wife, ‘We have five hours and we must get in and then get back on the other side. If we don’t, we will be stuck here,’ ” Kozen said. “I just wanted to do a quite assessment to look at the damage and see what I had ahead of me.”
What Kozen saw was his first glimpse at the sea of downed or damaged trees and the likelihood of numerous damaged or destroyed century-or-older monuments. It wasn’t until Sept. 28 that he was able to make a less-hectic trip back to the Port City, and it took every bit of two days to walk the property’s nearly 100 acres to get an accurate account of the damage.
“We had more than 200 trees that were damaged,” Kozen said. “Of those, 120 were laid on the ground and the remaining 80 were broken limbs or widow makers.”
For reference, the cemetery, which opened in 1855, lost 27 trees in 2016’s Hurricane Matthew.
Underneath the fallen branches, Kozen said he could see the gravestones and monuments peeking through — but any actual damage was still hidden under debris.
In the two months since the storm, Kozen said trees have been removed, some lifted out of out of the densely packed grounds to protect the surrounding stones. He’s also found about 86 monuments to have sustained varying degrees of damage.
“Most were just knocked down or blown over, so it is just a matter of re-erecting them on their base,” Kozen said. “This storm here was the very first hurricane where I’ve seen monuments just literally blown over by the wind.”
But some were broken or severely cracked by the fallen trees and whipping winds.
Repairing ‘orphaned graves’
Rehabilitating those stones will take time. Repairing monuments is not among the cemetery’s duties or in its budget.
That doesn’t mean they will be lost to the storm.
“It takes time because you have to go through records to find descendants and 90 percent of the monuments that were disturbed or broken don’t have living descendants,” Kozen said.
In cases like these, he said the Friends of the Oakdale Cemetery organization has already stepped up to fundraise – for widespread cleanup — and securing funding to look after the so-called “orphaned graves.”
“Morally, we look at these situations and we want the property to go back to its original form,” Kozen said.
In all, he said the cemetery took on an estimated $200,000 in damage.
But it could have been far worse. Near Burnt Mill Creek and 23rd Street, the National Weather Service’s Wilmington office confirmed a tornado touched down, toppling trees and charting a path very close to the cemetery.
Even inside the cemetery, Kozen said something bigger was a work when trees started to tumble — something he attributes to “divine intervention.”
“When these huge trees come down, massive with branches, there are a lot of monuments that could be right there to be damaged,” he said. “But for whatever reason, I guess the make up of the trees, they fall and very few monuments get damaged and they just stick up through the branches.”
With the storm in the past and cleanup well underway, Kozen is now looking to September 2019, when Florence can be just another piece of the cemetery’s history.
“Hopefully, by then, we will be 99 percent restored,” he said.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com.