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Ventura County

Storm Leaves Flags in Tatters

Holiday: About 300 banners at cemetery, most once draped over coffins, were damaged Veterans Day weekend.

November 20, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it weren't for the bold colors of the tattered rags strewn about Ivy Lawn Cemetery the morning after Veterans Day, no one would know what the heaps of twisted material used to be. But the red, white and blue left no doubt that the tangled tatters were the remains of about 300 U.S. flags destroyed in a storm the previous night.

"It's just devastating to look at them," said Ivy Lawn General Manager Terri Gonzalez, who spent an entire morning scooping up soggy flag remains. "They were too wet to bring inside, but I couldn't just leave them lying there. I love these flags. I feel like I could cry."

In the week since the storm, local veterans have established a fund to raise as much as $30,000 for replacement and repair of the damaged flags.

The ruined flags were among more than 940 hoisted above the roadway that winds through the cemetery near Ventura for a holiday weekend display called Avenue of the Flags.

Most had been draped over the coffins of servicemen and women, and then given to the cemetery for use on Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the Fourth of July. The name, rank and dates of birth and death are stitched along the edge of each 9-foot by 5-foot flag, thanks to members of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"That's the thing," notes Garland Middleton, a member of the Avenue of Flags Committee. "These weren't just flags. These were flags that flew for servicemen."

Some of the flags are fragile because of their age, Middleton said. Many date from before World War II. The oldest, bearing 45 stars, are at least 94 years old.

"They looked good hanging," Middleton said. "But they can't take wind or inclement weather because they're already ready to just fall apart."

The oldest of the ruined flags will have to be custom made. After all, no one manufactures flags representing the U.S. before the admission of Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii.

At $70 to $100 apiece, replacing all 300 flags could cost as much as $30,000. That means it could be some time before all of them are flying again.

Some of the banners may be salvaged. Volunteers assembled by the cemetery's flag committee will scrub out mud and water blotches from those not torn too badly. Other flags will be cut up, with the material used to patch tears on less-damaged flags. Still, as many as 100 are twisted and stained beyond repair.

Those will be destroyed in a formal retiring ceremony. By tradition, a speech honoring the flag is given before each is set aflame.

Cemetery workers said they were devastated to find the flags in such a mess. Ivy Lawn was covered with tree branches and several of the metal poles holding the giant flags were torn from the ground or bent.

Despite heavy rainfall on Veterans Day, the weather was not so fierce that it was expected to cause any real damage.

The National Weather Service reported no abnormally strong winds in the late-night hours of Nov. 12 or the early morning of Nov. 13.

"It could've been isolated incidents of gusty winds through the cemetery," said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist for the service. "And those flags would have been very heavy once they got wet and could've been easily torn."

The storm was heavy enough to knock out power in several pockets of Ventura County and dump more than 2 inches of rain.

According to protocol, a flag need not be taken down at night as long as it is illuminated, which is the case within the cemetery.

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