Massive Flood Prompts West Virginia Town to Digitally Map Cemeteries

On June 23, when flash floods swept through the first floor of Clendenin, W. Va.’s town hall, records for the town's two cemeteries were lost.

by Lori Kersey, The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. / August 1, 2016
How digital assets are managed after death would be altered by pending legislation in Delaware. Shutterstock

(TNS) -- Clendenin, W. Va.'s ’s Koontz Cemetery has nearly 1,500 graves and is as old as the town itself. Just about everyone in the town has a relative buried there. The town owns and maintains that cemetery and Mary Osborne Cemetery, which has about 300 graves.

On June 23, when flash floods swept through the first floor of Clendenin’s town hall, records for both cemeteries were lost.

“Everything related to the cemetery was destroyed,” said Mike Stout, a 33-year town councilman. “And some of these records were so old. We did use them. We really depended on them.”

With the help of an Iowa technology company, the town is recreating records for the cemeteries. Des Moines-based NewCom Technologies is donating its services to create interment records for both of them.

NewCom field technicians Daniel Petro and Matt Vande Kamp came to West Virginia for the job earlier this week. They said the work will take about two weeks in the field and two weeks to a month in the office after that.

“We’re going to be walking each cemetery, taking GPS points and photos of all graves,” Petro said. “Then we’ll send that information back to the NewCom office in Iowa and, together with information we’re gathering from citizens here and government officials, we’re going to be composing ancestry data and putting it all together on a digital map [geographic information system].”

Microsoft and GPS-mapping company Esri also contributed, donating equipment and software, respectively.

Clendenin Mayor Gary Bledsoe said his son, Erik, of Virginia Beach, contacted NewCom after hearing that the cemeteries’ records were destroyed by the flooding.

“There are generations and generations of people from Clendenin — from the very incorporation of the town to the present day — buried here,” Bledsoe said of Koontz Cemetery. “Almost everyone that lives in the town of Clendenin now, I’m sure, has a relative here. I have several relatives here. So it’s a very important part of our community.”

When someone dies, the funeral home calls the town government to arrange to have the proper grave opened, Bledsoe said.

“Without the maps and ledgers, we were going to have a [difficult] time coming up here and finding just exactly what plot needs to be opened,” he said. “With this mapping that these gentlemen are going to do, we’ll be able now to just go to our computer and put the name in.”

Petro said the company took on the project for free because, as Iowans, they know what it’s like to live through a devastating flood. The state was hit hard in 1993 by floods that killed 50 people in the Midwest and caused $15 billion in damage across the region, according to reports.

“There’s been a few [floods] since then, but we’ve all experienced some kind of tragedy like this,” Petro said. “Even if we didn’t experience it, it’s easy to feel the pain that people are going through here. So we just wanted to do what we can to help.”

Stout said the town of Clendenin would never have been able to pay the $25,000 to $30,000 it would cost to have the remapping done. Cemetery upkeep is run on donations.

“During this flood, I’ve seen a whole lot of people come in from all over the United States and donate their time and money to help our community,” he said. “That kind of renews my faith in humanity, that there’s some good people out there.”

©2016 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.