As Hurricane Ida gathered strength before barrelling into Louisiana, emergency operators received more than 50 calls from a cramped warehouse used as a makeshift shelter for more than 800 residents from New Orleans-area nursing homes.
At least seven people died, and 12 people required immediate hospital care, according to the state’s health department.
In New Orleans, the city’s health department reported five deaths at senior living centres in Ida’s aftermath and evacuated eight facilities deemed “unfit” for residents.
“In some of these facilities, we found fairly stark conditions,” said the city’s health director Jennifer Avegno. “No power, no elevators, no lights, individuals in their rooms who couldn’t access normal supports or services … Tragically in some places, our staff discovered residents who had died and had not yet been discovered.”
The deaths have revived long-simmering debate among Louisiana officials over oversight and accountability for privately operated senior living centres and nursing homes, which have an immensely powerful industry lobby in the state’s legislature, which determines the payment formulas for using federal and state funds that go to the facilities.
On 4 September, the Louisiana Department of Health ordered the immediate closure of the seven nursing homes that evacuated their residents to a makeshift facility in Independence, a town roughly 70 miles north of New Orleans.
Calls for help flooded emergency lines as soon as people were moved into the warehouse on 27 August, according to call logs obtained by Baton Rouge ABC affiliate WBRZ.
The calls continued as conditions began to deteriorate as the storm approached – failing generators, lack of adequate supplies and air-conditioning, piled-up trash and poor quality of healthcare, with patients forced to lie down in their own faeces and urine on deflated air mattresses, according to the state’s health department.
The agency dispatched inspectors to the site several times “upon hearing reports of deteriorating conditions,” according to a statement.
But inspectors “were expelled from the property and prevented from conducting a full assessment” on 31 August, nearly two days after the storm made landfall, the agency reported.
Health department workers were “subject to intimidation by the owner of the seven nursing facilities,” the agency said in a statement.
The health department and state agencies began evacuating patients from the warehouse on 1 September.
A state fire marshal report also found lack of adequate spacing between beds and blocked entryways, among other issues, also prompting fears that crowding inside the warehouse could spread Covid-19 among vulnerable older patients.
“The lack of regard for these vulnerable residents’ wellbeing is an affront to human dignity,” state health officer Joseph Kanter said in a statement. “We have lost trust in these nursing homes to provide adequate care for their residents. We are taking immediate action today to protect public health.”
Officials said that the conditions at the warehouse “call into question” the ability of the seven nursing homes – all owned by developer Bob Dean – to provide proper care to their patients.
Mr Dean has defended the response from his facilities.
“We only had five deaths within the six days and normally with 850 people, you’ll have a couple a day, so we did really good with taking care of people,” Mr Dean told WAFB.
“Normally, we lose two to three a day because they are very ill,” he told WVUE. “We did the best that we could.”
New Orleans officials visited roughly 30 senior living facilities and evacuated nearly 600 residents to state shelters, according to Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office.
Christopher Homes Inc, “a senior living ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans,” owns several of the facilities evacuated by New Orleans emergency responders. Three residents were found dead in its properties.
In a statement through the archdiocese, Christopher Homes said that it could not close facilities without a mandatory evacuation order from the city.
“All residents were encouraged to evacuate,” and 286 residents chose to stay in their apartments or did not have enough money to to support their evacuation, according to the statement.
Christopher Homes “repeatedly requested assistance and resources from civil authorities” after Ida made landfall, the statement said. “After the death of one of our residents was reported five days later [on 3 September], civil authorities finally responded and provided resources to evacuate those residents who had not voluntarily evacuated.”
Mayor Cantrell said she refuses to “play the blame game.”
“If there is an issue that this is a city matter, I own it every step of the way, including all of the people who stand with me to deliver services. This is not one of them,” she told reporters on 6 September.
“I think accountability needs to be where it is,” she said. “And that’s all on these institutions, the Archdiocese, whomever, who is responsible for operating, maintaining, and protecting the lives of the elderly, which they are paid to do.”