Frustrations mount as New Live Oak Cemetery cleanup drags on with little accomplished

Published 2:01 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2023

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By Dennis Palmer

The Selma Times-Journal

Visit to see drone video of storm damage to New Live Oak Cemetery. The footage is courtesy of Rex Jones of Cougar Oil.

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Nearly four months after a tornado devastated the City of Selma, most of the debris in the city has been cleared and hauled to landfills with the notable exception of New Live Oak Cemetery, where hundreds of trees, limbs, and other debris lay in the same spots they did 113 days ago.

As families attempt to gain access to care for loved one’s graves, and funeral homes attempt to bury people in the city-owned cemetery, they’re being met with locked gates, and few answers as to why it’s taking so long.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s unnecessary. I’ve been out there and looked, and I understand there’s a few limbs hanging from trees,” said Shane Ogle, a licensed funeral home director and funeral home manager of Selma Funeral Home. “I was down there the day after everything happened, and yes I understand there are a lot of trees down. We have volunteered our time, we’ve volunteered our equipment to set markers back up, and do anything we can do, but that’s all been pushed to the side.”

The frustration in Ogle’s voice is obvious as his funeral home has been peppered with dozens of calls about the status of the funeral home by citizens and customers who want access to their loved one’s graves, and he says all he gets from the City of Selma is the runaround.

“We’ve gotten memo after memo after memo that say the same thing, over and over again,” Ogle said. “This is going to take a little bit longer. [The city] is not trying to get it cleaned up, they’re really not.”

Ogle said the City blames FEMA for the delays, but he has yet to see anything in writing from FEMA that explains why the cleanup hasn’t occurred.

“Show us in writing where FEMA has given directions on exactly what has to take place,” Ogle said. “If they can show us that in writing exactly what FEMA has said, I won’t have such a problem with it. If they have all these FEMA requirements, prove it to the people. You keep on saying that, but not one finger has been lifted to do anything out there.”

Ogle also said his funeral home was told any funerals conducted at New Live Oak are limited to five cars and immediate family members only, which obviously causes families more stress when dealing with the burial of a family member.

“It’s tragic that people are having to deal with these hassles at a time where they’re very troubled with the loss of a loved one and then having to go through the burial process with all this red tape,” said Doug Buster, who heads the Cemetery Preservation Group, a local non-profit dedicated to the protection, restoration, and preservation of historic cemeteries in Selma. “It certainly has gone on way too long, and I don’t know if that’s due to confusion among the leadership, whether that’s the city, or FEMA, I just don’t know where the blame goes. I think a good person in a leadership position should be able to make some good decisions and get this resolved. There’s just no sense to continue on like this.”

In a statement to The Selma Times-Journal from FEMA, Issa Mansaray said the federal organization has been working closely with the City on cleanup, but since New Live Oak Cemetery is a historical landmark, the process has been different from cleaning up local streets and other public property.

“The City of Selma New Live Oak Cemetery is on the National Historical Register therefore, the city was required to obtain a permit from the Alabama Historical Commission to perform disaster related debris removal in the New Live Oak Cemetery,” the FEMA release states. “The permit issued on March 1, 2023, identified actions for the City of Selma to comply with Alabama State requirements.”

In a letter dated March 1, 2023 to Reginald Wells, who heads the City’s cemetery department, the Alabama Historical Commission gave specific guidance on debris removal from the cemetery.

“Heavy machinery should not leave existing roads – debris removal should be by hand within the cemetery limits or by crane from the existing access roads and there should be no mechanical skidding/dragging of logs and large limbs within the cemetery limits,” the letter states. “Root balls and stumps should be cut/ground even with the ground surface (no grinding/digging below ground surface). Before root balls are removed, they should be closely examined for the possible presence of human skeletal remains. Any fill should come from a clean and approved commercial source.”

The letter states the permit is valid from March 1, 2023 until March 1, 2025, and failure to follow the guidelines “will result in the revocation of the permit.” The letter also states a short narrative and good quality photos depicting all stages of the project should be sent to the Alabama Historical Commission.

Per FEMA, the city is eligible to be reimbursed for 75% of eligible costs of the debris removal and since the City is responsible for the cleanup, “All work related questions should be routed to the responsible local government.” FEMA also shared a timeline of their activities related to New Live Oak with the City of Selma:

  • Following the January 12 tornadoes, the City of Selma attempted to perform work in the New Live Oak Cemetery using a previous maintenance permit.
  • During an initial inspection of the cemetery that FEMA conducted on February 15, 2023, the city was informed by FEMA and the Alabama Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) that a current permit was needed from the Alabama Historical Commission. The previous permit that the city had was for general maintenance of the cemetery, which did not include the disaster-related ground disturbance.
  • Following another inspection that was conducted on February 22, 2023, the city was issued a current permit on March 1, 2023, which is valid until March 1, 2025. The permit details the Historical Commission requirements. This indicates the city could remove most of the debris, including from the roads.

Ogle said the tornado damage to New Live Oak has simply brought to the forefront problems that have existed with the cemetery for many years. Lack of maintenance, poor or no communication, and cost overruns have plagued the cemetery department for decades and the tornado damage has amplified the problems, he said.

“The city cemetery was already bleeding money, losing about $300,000 per year,” said Ogle, whose funeral home owns and operates Pineview Memory Gardens, a 25-acre cemetery in Valley Grande. “They don’t care. We have actually sat down face-to-face several years back and showed them what they can do to gain revenue, and they simply will not do it.”

Ultimately the blame falls on the city and its leadership, says Ogle, whose funeral home can’t even access the cemetery to place markers on graves of those buried before the tornado hit.

“The city cemetery is a joke. It’s beautiful, it’s historic, I have family buried there, but the maintenance and the care of it is an absolute joke,” Ogle said. “I think when [former cemetery director] John Coon was alive, he did the best he could do with what he was given, and the new director, Reginald Wells, is doing an okay job and the best with what he’s given. I think it comes from the mayor’s office. It’s a matter of poor management, not on the cemetery director’s side, but the powers to be won’t allow things to change out there. There’s citizens [the City] has to answer to, and they’re not answering to any of the citizens, they’re just saying ‘We’re going to do what we want to do.’ As far as I’m concerned, Mayor Perkins doesn’t own New Live Oak; he doesn’t own a cemetery in this city, but he’s a dictator trying to be dictator over all of them.”

Editor’s note: The Selma Times-Journal attempted to contact Selma Mayor James Perkins, Jr. for comment on this story, but he was unavailable at press time. His comments will be added to the online version of this story when and if received.