NEW ORLEANS — In the days after Hurricane Ida blew into Louisiana, flooding streets, destroying homes and downing power lines, Melissa Barbier struggled to get any word about her 64-year-old mother.
Finally, Barbier said, on Sunday someone working at a shelter in Alexandria, La., called to say that she had seen her mother, Madeleine Bergeron. But Barbier said it was not clear when she might get to speak with Bergeron, who has dementia and needs help using the restroom.
“We’re in South Louisiana,” said Barbier, 36, who lives in Lafayette, about an hour away. “An emergency care plan should be in place. … I can’t wrap my head around how nobody has contacted me. Who gave the authority to the nursing home to evacuate?”
“I feel like they herded my mom and these poor people like cattle,” she said.
Families are scrambling for basic information on vulnerable loved ones as Louisiana authorities investigate the evacuation of more than 800 residents at seven nursing homes to the warehouse in the town of Independence. Local officials there soon raised alarms about putrid smells, packed-in mattresses and EMTs allegedly being sent away after residents called for help. The state health department ordered the homes to close Saturday, saying seven residents who were sent to the warehouse had died, with five of the fatalities deemed “storm-related.”
The deaths underscored Ida’s threat to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents — the frail and elderly — 16 years after Hurricane Katrina drowned nearly three dozen patients in a single nursing home. The storm’s death toll rose Sunday as state leaders announced a 13th fatality: a 74-year-old man who they said died of heat exhaustion and lack of oxygen amid punishing temperatures and huge power outages that make it hard to stay cool.
Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) said Sunday afternoon that nearly 600,000 customers around the state still lack power a week after Ida’s landfall, with some parishes virtually devoid of electricity and reliant on generators. He said authorities are still trying to assess the hurricane’s damage as National Guard members from as far as away as Alaska join a massive relief effort.
Evacuations can be necessary but perilous with a “frail and fragile population,” Edwards said at a news conference, and “the question is whether we are doing them the way that we should and whether we’re learning. … I don’t have all the answers for that right now.”
Authorities have vowed further action against the nursing homes that evacuated to Independence, and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) said he is investigating the deaths — trying to determine who moved the patients to an “apparently unsafe” place and who rebuffed authorities’ first attempts to intervene. The state health department said its inspectors tried to visit the warehouse on Tuesday after hearing about “deteriorating conditions” but were kicked out and subjected to “intimidation” from the nursing homes’ owner.
The health department reviews nursing homes’ emergency plans, and The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate reported that the agency approved a plan for an “alternate care facility” where people from seven nursing homes could evacuate. The health department did not comment on its oversight Sunday, but leaders have decried the conditions at the warehouse.
“What happened in Independence is reprehensible, and I know there are many families hurting as a result,” said Louisiana Health Secretary Courtney N. Phillips, while Louisiana State Health Officer Joseph Kanter called residents’ treatment an “affront to human dignity.”
The owner of the nursing homes, Bob Dean, could not be reached for comment Sunday but suggested to a local news station that deaths among his residents were expected.
“Normally with 850 people, you’ll have a couple a day, so we did really good with taking care of people,” Dean told WAFB-TV.
Dean’s nursing homes have drawn scrutiny before. Most of the seven ordered to close received the lowest possible ratings after inspections, according to Medicare.gov.
In 1998, an 86-year-old resident of one of Dean’s nursing homes died among a group who reportedly spent hours on a bus without air conditioning while waiting to be unloaded at a Baton Rouge shelter, the Associated Press said. And in 2005, the Times-Picayune raised alarms about patient care at Dean’s facilities. One resident, the newspaper reported, was hospitalized after being attacked by ants.
Louisiana state Rep. Nicholas Muscarello Jr. (R), who represents the parish that includes Independence, said he went to the warehouse Tuesday with the town’s mayor and others after hearing that “a lot of emergency calls” were coming from the facility. They arrived to find trash heaped outside — with no dumpsters in sight — and inside, elderly evacuees crowded onto mattresses only a few feet apart.
Muscarello said he was alarmed their group could walk right in. “I’ve seen enough,” he recalled quickly telling his colleagues before escalating the issue to others in the legislature.
“Clearly [Dean] chose not to put any … resources into making this shelter a viable shelter,” the lawmaker said. If investigations prove wrongdoing, Muscarello said, “he should lose every license, and he needs to be out of the nursing business.”
Residents of Dean’s nursing homes across four parishes were evacuated to the warehouse on Aug. 27 in anticipation of Hurricane Ida, authorities said. By Sept. 1, the state health department was working to move them again. Officials started with “the most vulnerable” and “had rescued the vast majority” by the end of that day, the department said, adding that all nursing home residents were evacuated by Sept. 2.
Authorities have released few details about the deaths among residents of Dean’s homes. A spokeswoman for the state health department, Mindy Faciane, said Sunday that five of the victims ranged in age from 52 to 84 but did not share names, causes of death or other details.
As of Saturday, the department said it had connected with more than 200 of the residents’ families and urged people to call 211 for help finding their relatives.
But loved ones and authorities alike said they were wondering how residents ended up in such conditions.
Connie Mahler, 47, said she spent the past few days trying to locate her grandmother, 88-year-old Bonnie Correnti, who was evacuated from Maison Orleans Healthcare Center to the Independence warehouse. Without access to reliable cellphone service or local media reports, she enlisted the help of a police officer friend before finally hearing from relatives that Correnti had been transferred to the Bayou Vista Community Care Center in Bunkie, La., more than two hours north of her old facility in New Orleans.
She said she has mixed feelings about the decision to shut down that nursing home and others owned by Dean.
“If they shut him down, he needed to be. That’s cruelty,” she said. “But … now what? Now I’m worried about what’s going to happen to her. Like, where is she going to go?”
Renetta DeRosia, 55, was finally able to set eyes on her 84-year-old mother, Loretta Duet, on Saturday. “She said they’re being very well taken care of, but she’s ready to come closer to home,” DeRosia said.
She said she saw the conditions outside the Independence warehouse herself after last week’s relocations — noting trash and wheelchairs left behind.
Evacuees are now spread across the state. About a fourth of the more than 800 residents were brought to the Bossier Civic Center, more than four hours from Independence, where a team of doctors evaluated them for covid-19 and other medical concerns, said Peter Seidenberg, chair of family medicine at the LSU Health Shreveport School of Medicine.
Seidenberg said the evacuees showed up with a range of ailments typical of those in nursing home care: mobility issues, dementia, diabetes, heart and lung disease. They were also hungry and tired, he said.
“They were in a warehouse for about two days without air conditioning. Many had not eaten or received their medicines in about a day,” Seidenberg said. “They were very thankful to have some food and to have some medical attention and to have a place to sleep and get some rest.”
An on-site pharmacist ran between the facility and a nearby CVS, filling prescriptions for evacuees whose medicines were lost during the transfer.
Remarkably, Seidenberg said, most were in stable condition, with only six needing transfer to a hospital. But two of the evacuees tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting medical personnel to split the shelter into thirds: one isolated section for those two patients, another for everyone who made the long journey on their bus, and a third for the remaining evacuees.
“The evacuation likely saved their lives,” Seidenberg said.
Knowles reported from Washington.