Faced with storm erosion on Hart Island that continues to unearth human remains, New York City officials this week are planning an urgent recovery of bones from its shores, saying they also want to accelerate repairs to the island’s sea wall damaged by superstorm Sandy.
Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Correction — which has control of the island and uses prisoners to bury bodies — acknowledged in a statement last Wednesday that erosion can mean a risk of exposure.
“For that reason, we have scheduled with OCME [Office of Chief Medical Examiner]to remove and reinter any currently exposed remains this week,” Kersten said.
He explained the department is doing everything it can to expedite the firming up of the shoreline.
An estimated one million people are buried on Hart Island, a slice of land between City Island and Sands Point on the Long Island Sound, that’s been New York City’s Potters Field since 1869.
According to a report prepared by the city after Sandy for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the storm surge in October 2012 caused “significant damage” to the shoreline and sea walls of the island, which sits in Long Island Sound between City Island and Sands Point.
In 2015 some $13.2 million in sea walls funding was allocated for the Long Island Sound to the Department of Correction, but the project was delayed in part because New York State had to do environmental and history reviews as the island is a historic landmark.
Melinda Hunt, who heads the nonprofit The Hart Island Project — an organization that works to preserve the island and its history — and Oyster Bay pediatrician and photographer Greg Gulbransen traveled to the island last Sunday to document the disinterment of remains on the northeast shoreline. They photographed the scene from a fishing boat.
Gulbransen said he saw what he believed were the remains of four individuals whose bones are scattered among the rocks and sticking out of tree roots. “I was shocked by what I saw through my lens,” Gulbransen said in an email.
Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), chair of the committee on health, has long pushed for the Parks Department to take control of the island and wants the city medical examiner, which he oversees, to be in charge of burials.
“These are New Yorkers who are buried there, people who were neglected and marginalized in life and we have done the same thing to them in this burial ground.”
Levine and Hunt believe the city can’t wait and must take some action now. “Enough is enough,” Hunt said.
Gulbransen said the remains must be reburied.
“Every culture in the world recognizes the importance of a proper burial and the sanctity of a grave,” Gulbransen said.