The city will finally begin to restore Hart Island, the country’s largest public cemetery, which was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Seven years ago, Hurricane Sandy flooded the island, causing shoreline erosion, which in turn exposed human remains. Back in 2015, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the city more than $13.2 million to repair and restore the island’s seawalls and shoreline. But since the project, previously planned to begin in 2020, involves human remains, it requires archaelogical experts to be part of it as well.
“The restoration of Hart Island is a step in the right direction towards our city treating the souls laid to rest at Hart Island with the dignity they deserve,” City Council speaker Corey Johnson told Curbed in a statement.
“The Council knows that we have much more work to do to make our city’s public cemetery a more dignified place that lets family and friends of those we’ve lost mourn properly and we will continue our work on this important issue.”
The City Council was drawn to accelerate the restoration process after Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Group, showed the legislative body photos of the island’s shoreline with exposed human remains, Hunt tells WSJ. The city has now hired several H&L Contracting and Chrysalis Archaelogical Consultants to handle the project—which will begin next month.
More than one million poor and disenfranchised New Yorkers have been buried on the Bronx island, which has been part of New York City since 1869. Civil War veterans, stillborn children, and the unclaimed were buried there. The island still serves as a cemetery, offering low-cost burials.
The Department of Corrections operates the island and pays Rikers Island inmates $1 per hour to bury bodies—which has resulted in families having to go through a lengthy process to be able to access the cemetery and pay respect to their relatives. Until 2015, according to the Hart Island Project, the process for family members to visit the island required an attorney. Though in 2015 the city settled a class action lawsuit allowing relatives to visit graves one weekend a month, the process to visit the cemetery is still not easy.
Back in May, the City Council introduced a package of bills that would improve accessibility to the island by transferring jurisdiction to the Department of Parks and Recreation; requiring the Department of Transportation to maintain a regular ferry service to the island; creating a task force on public burial and similar issues; and establishing an office to provide support to those who need burial assistance.