Half of the bodies inside caskets that floated out of their graves in Elmwood Cemetery during Hurricane Matthew and its subsequent flooding in October 2016, have not been able to be returned to their proper graves.
Goldsboro Public Works Director Rick Fletcher said 18 of the 36 bodies that floated out of the graves have been unable to be positively identified.
But that's set to change as medical personnel prepare to take DNA samples from the deceased, possibly as early as later this month.
Fletcher said coordinating the process with the several different agencies required to perform the feat has been complicated, delaying the identification of the dead.
"I just don't want people to think we haven't been actively pursuing a resolution and getting them re-interred, because we have," Fletcher said. "It's just taken longer than we expected."
Wayne County Emergency Services Director Mel Powers said the process requires removing the bodies from their caskets, putting them on a gurney so a staffer from the North Carolina Chief Medical Examiner's Office can take a DNA sample and then returning them to a new casket.
Fletcher said the caskets will then be tagged and returned to individual plots in a general location of Elmwood Cemetery. Records will be kept of which DNA sample corresponds with which casket, and once the bodies are positively identified by their respective DNA, they can then be returned to their original graves.
Fletcher said a plaque will be placed in Elmwood Cemetery with a list of the names of the people who came up out of their graves during the flood.
Family members will then be able to see the name of their dead loved ones on the plaque and provide a DNA sample for a cross-reference to positively identify them.
Powers said one puzzle piece missing in getting the process underway is assembling a Disaster Mortuary Operation Response Team, also known as a DMORT team. The search is ongoing to get someone to do that.
This team will be the one to help the staffer from the Chief Medical Examiner's office draw DNA samples by actually moving the bodies from a casket, to gurney and back to the casket.
Powers added that officials are currently trying to get a court order authorizing the extraction of DNA from the bodies.
"Not that we have to have it, but we just want to make sure," Powers said. "It's just a court order giving us permission to obtain it."
Both Powers and Fletcher said the bodies are in caskets that have no identifying information attached to them.
Some caskets only floated part of the way out of the graves, Fletcher said, making it easy to know where to re-bury them.
But when others came all the way out of the ground, officials decided to hold off on putting them back in the ground until they could be positively identified so no coffins were put back in the wrong graves.
Fletcher said officials have a list of the bodies waiting to be identified, and some family members have come forward to provide DNA samples for cross-referencing.
The bodies have been stored in a refrigerated unit at the city's Public Works compound since they were displaced.
Fletcher said the DNA sample will likely come from the femur bone.
The bodies were buried during the 1980s and 1990s, Fletcher said, meaning taking a sample from the femur bone will give officials the best shot at recovering usable DNA.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is projected to cover the cost of the process.