July 11 2012 10:26 AM

In the event of a catastrophe, San Diego County has a plan for mass burials

Illustration by Adam Vieyra
Less than half a mile west of the San Diego Convention Center, just past the Manchester Grand Hyatt and next to the Seaport Village sign, lies the marker for a mass grave.

Somewhere beneath the soil of La Punta de los Muertos, "Dead Men's Point," rest the bodies of an indeterminate number of Spanish sailors who perished from scurvy on a 1782 survey mission commanded by Don Augustín de Echeverria. Some historians claim the ground holds the bones of another 100 sailors who succumbed to scurvy and dysentery during the first expedition to San Diego, led by explorer Gaspar de Portolà and Father Juniper Serra in 1769.

Mass burials have been part of San Diego history from the beginning, and, if catastrophe were to destroy the city, mass burials would likely mark the city's end, too. And local government is somewhat ready for it—Section VI of Annex F of the regional "Operational Area Emergency Plan" describes the conditions that would necessitate mass burial, names those who would make the decision and identifies suitable locations for large graves.

In its field manual for first responders, Management of Dead Bodies After Disasters, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) cautions against jumping too quickly to this measure. Done haphazardly, it could traumatize families and pose significant legal liabilities. While decaying bodies may be putrid, PAHO says that, contrary to popular belief, the presence of dead bodies doesn't present a health risk. Instead, mass burials should be used primarily to preserve bodies temporarily for identification purposes in situations where adequate refrigeration isn't available. However, in the long term, PAHO acknowledges communal graves may be the only option.

But a lot would have to happen for San Diego to get to that point—starting with a "Level 3" event, such as a natural disaster, terrorist attack or nuclear accident (or zombie outbreak), in which the local agencies are overwhelmed with bodies.

Medical examiner

In a mass-fatality situation, the San Diego County Department of the Medical Examiner would be the lead organization for managing dead bodies, coordinating the identification process and manning family-assistance centers.

The medical examiner opened a new building in 2009, which currently has a capacity for 500 bodies. The department also owns a "mobile morgue" that can refrigerate 12 more. Two morgue trailers each hold 22 bodies. When the medical examiner's capacity reaches its brink—approximately 556 bodies—the department is authorized to open temporary morgue facilities in locations such as airport hangars and empty warehouses. According to the emergency plan, these facilities must be secure, equipped with showers and have front-office reception areas. The medical examiner can call for backup via the federal-level Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.

According to Dr. Amado Alejandro Baez, a national specialist in mortuary services in disaster scenarios, displaying 1,000 bodies would require approximately 2,000 square meters of space. Baez estimates decomposition may render a body unidentifiable within 48 hours, creating a small window for establishing identity and photographing the bodies.

Mass burial

According to the regional emergency plan, a mass burial could become necessary when the dead can't be refrigerated or embalmed, properly processed or released to next of kin and area cemeteries aren't able to shoulder the extra load.

The decision to invoke the mass-burial protocol would fall to three county officials in particular: Chief Medical Examiner Glenn Wagner, Public Health Officer Wilma J. Wooten and Emergency Services Director Holly Crawford. The California Emergency Management Agency would need to sign off on it, as would local officials, including the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

PAHO's field manual lays out the specifications for a mass-burial trench. A mass grave should be between 1.5 and 3 meters deep, at least 200 meters from drinking water sources and 2 meters above the water table. Each body should be placed in a body bag or wrapped in a sheet and laid in a single layer with about .4 meters between each body. The bodies should be meticulously documented in a grid for later identification.

Cremation, according to PAHO, should be avoided because it destroys evidence, often results in partially incinerated remains that would have to be buried anyway and requires an enormous amount of fuel (300 kilograms of wood per body, Baez says).


The first choice for a mass-burial site, of course, would be an existing cemetery. Assuming that's not an option, the regional plan identifies six alternative types of locations: county landfills, parks and recreational areas, flood-control basins ("weather permit ting"), sides of freeways or river beds, areas beneath power lines and rail yards or along rail lines.

But while geographically feasible, most would be a tough sell politically, says Michael Pallamary, who runs the local land-use consulting and surveying firm Pallamary & Associates.

"Contemporary land-use planning has a lot to do with the political implications, so [with a mass grave], you'd either have to face political stigma or the environmental implications," he says. "You're not going to bury them in Mission Valley near hotels or golf courses. The concept of burying in a flood-control channel and having it wash up, that's hardly an attractive venture."

Pallamary knows a place that meets many of those criteria: the uninhabitable area to the southeast of Mission Bay, near Sea World Drive and Friars Road. It used to be a toxic dump and is near the San Diego River, two freeways and an electricity substation. The proposed Gregory Canyon Landfill would also be an obvious location, but, based on the county's list, Pallamary thinks the best options are easements under power lines owned by San Diego Gas & Electric.

"I think the power lines would be the only contemporary viable site," he says. "A lot of these power lines are extraordinarily wide so they could accommodate significant burial sites, and you're probably never going to use those areas anyway."

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass. Big props to Michael-Leonard for catching a grammatical fault and alerting us to the proper compass directions. We offer our apologies to anyone who gets lost walking the wrong way out of the convention center in search of La Punta de los Muertos. 


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