What hurricanes can dredge up: Coffins, canoes and creatures

In this Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017 photo Charles Cook, groundskeeper at Olivewood Cemetery, trims grass at the cemetery in Houston. Hurricane Harvey floodwaters exposed dozens of caskets at swamped cemeteries in Texas and Louisiana last month, the grim result of shallow graves set in spongy soil, and a scene that may reappear as Florida cleans up after Hurricane Irma.(Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News via AP)
Charles Cook, groundskeeper at Olivewood Cemetery, trims grass at the cemetery in Houston on Sept. 10. Hurricane Harvey floodwaters exposed dozens of caskets at swamped cemeteries in Texas and Louisiana last month, the grim result of shallow graves set in spongy soil. –Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News via AP

Jarring things can happen when the sea comes crashing into human habitats.

After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma battered Texas, the Caribbean and Florida, some memorable characters, stories of tragedy and moments of grace emerged from the wreckage.

The storms also left behind several unexpected mementos.

Some were surprising, like the old — and possibly historically significant — wooden canoe that washed ashore not far from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Some were macabre, like the dozens of coffins that were nudged aboveground in Texas. And some, like the many animals wrenched from their habitats or left stranded by receding tides, were alive.

An old boat resurfaces

On Sept. 11, Randy Lathrop was riding his bike near the shore in Cocoa, Florida — an early morning habit for him — when he came upon something strange.

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To an untrained eye, it might have looked like a large piece of driftwood. But Lathrop, a photographer and a history buff, homed in on a few unusual features.

“I was kind of taken aback,” he said. “I was like, ‘Well, this can’t be.’”

It was a dugout canoe, of the type that humans have carved from trees since ancient times. This one was made of cypress wood and it featured a seat and some square iron nails.

Lathrop found a neighbor with a truck and lugged the waterlogged canoe — he estimated it weighed several hundred pounds — onto the truck bed. It is now being stored in a safe place.

The boat could be hundreds of years old, Lathrop said, although he added that he had no way to know for sure. He has alerted state authorities, who are working to learn the canoe’s origins.

“It is Florida state law that you should report this type of thing, and these items do belong to the people of the state of Florida,” he said, adding that with any luck, the canoe would be displayed at a museum.

A creature with teeth

Something far less appealing washed up in Harvey’s wake on the shores of Galveston Bay in Texas City, Texas.

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Preeti Desai, a social media manager at the National Audubon Society, was documenting the organization’s efforts to assess the hurricane’s effect on birds in the area on Sept. 6 when she came across a baffling animal.

It was dead, brown, bloated and fanged.

Desai, an amateur photographer, took a picture and posted it to Twitter, seeking identification help from followers with taxonomical bona fides.

The response was swift. Several experts suggested the creature could be a fangtooth snake-eel, a fish native to the area that tends to hide in underwater burrows but darts out to snatch fish and crustaceans, while others on social media reacted with horror and called it a monster.

Desai estimated that it was only 3 or 4 feet long, including its tail, and was not monstrous at all.

“This isn’t scary. It’s just a part of nature,” she said, adding that she was glad the picture drew such interest. “My hope is that at least there are some people who get more curious about nature and the outside world.”

Coffins can float away

In Texas, Hurricane Harvey paid no respect to those who were meant to be resting in peace.

Coffins buried in shallow graves are vulnerable to floods, said Lashon Proctor, who owns Proctor’s Mortuary in Beaumont, Texas. Sometimes they inch up, rising above the ground, and sometimes even float away.

“There’s always the possibility of them coming up,” Proctor said. “Of course, we don’t want to deal with that, and we don’t want that to happen. But it does.”

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At small, remote or privately owned cemeteries, burial regulations are often less strict and coffins in shallow graves can be dislocated by storms. Over the years, hundreds have been displaced by Hurricanes Matthew, Katrina, Rita and others.

After Harvey, it happened to dozens of graves in Texas, Proctor said. He said his company worked with gravediggers to quickly rebury dozens of exposed coffins in cities and towns along Interstate 10, which runs through Beaumont.

Turtles pushed back, and then set forth

Plenty of living things, too, were displaced by the storms.

In Florida, hundreds upon hundreds of young loggerhead and green turtles — both protected species — were pushed ashore by Irma. Melanie Stadler, the sea turtle program coordinator at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, said its turtle healing center took in just over 1,500 turtles that were found on Florida’s eastern coast.

They were in good shape, she said (past hurricanes have brought in younger, sicklier bunches) and the zoo kept them fed until the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission helped send them back to the ocean — specifically, to the beds of algae where young turtles can find food and shelter.

Stadler said the proper protocol for people who find protected species of turtles washed ashore was to alert the commission or the county’s Sea Turtle Preservation Society. After Irma, there were also designated sites where people could leave the turtles for the zoo and other conservationist organizations to pick up.

“Fortunately there are so many people in Florida that care so much about turtles,” Stadler said. “When they see one, they forget about protocol and they just call whoever they know who takes care of turtles.”