Hundreds of residents were evacuated to the facility ahead of Hurricane Ida. Sanitation was poor, and they slept on mattresses on the floor.,
Louisiana Nursing Home Residents Describe Squalor at Warehouse
Wheelchairs and medical equipment outside a warehouse used to house nursing home residents in Independence, La.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times
Published Sept. 3, 2021Updated Sept. 5, 2021, 8:22 a.m. ET
INDEPENDENCE, La. — When Renetta DeRosia called her mother to wish her a happy birthday on Saturday, it seemed as if the phone was not working right. “I can’t hear you,” was all Ms. DeRosia heard from her mother, Loretta Duet, on the other end of the line.
It was days before she found out why. Instead of being evacuated from New Orleans to a nursing home out of Hurricane Ida’s path, Ms. Duet, 84, had been shuttled with more than 800 others to a warehouse in Independence, La., a small town that ended up being one of the most damaged by the storm.
“It was so loud because they had 800 people in there — that’s why she couldn’t hear me,” Ms. DeRosia said.
Residents were made to sleep on mattresses on the floor and relieve themselves in five-gallon buckets, Ms. DeRosia said by phone on Friday from Mississippi, where she had taken refuge amid an ongoing power failure in southern Louisiana. “It turned out to be a nightmare.”
Loretta Duet and her daughters.Credit…via Renetta DeRosia
Ms. Duet was among residents of seven privately run nursing homes who were rescued by state officials from squalor inside the warehouse this week. Five people died there, including three whose deaths were classified by state officials as “storm-related.” More than a dozen others had to be hospitalized after being taken from the warehouse.
The emerging accounts of family members about their loved ones’ harrowing experiences came as the state continued to grapple with the effects of Ida, which made landfall Sunday as an intense Category 4 storm. On Friday, the St. John the Baptist Parish coroner reported the death of a 59-year-old man from carbon monoxide poisoning from a generator; he was among at least 13 killed across the state in the wake of the storm.
Louisiana’s largest electric utility, Entergy, on Friday released its first timeline for complete power restoration in the wake of Hurricane Ida, indicating that it expected to have electricity flowing throughout the New Orleans metropolitan area by Wednesday — 10 days after the storm struck.
The Louisiana attorney general, Jeff Landry, said in a video statement Friday that his office had launched an investigation into the warehouse debacle in Independence, which is about 75 miles north of New Orleans. “We must determine the facts surrounding these tragic deaths,” he said.
On Saturday, the top medical official of the Louisiana Department of Health, Dr. Joseph Kanter, ordered the immediate closure of the seven nursing homes that sent residents to the warehouse, “pending further regulatory action.”
Emergency personnel evacuated people at a mass shelter in Independence, La., on Thursday. Credit…Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate, via Associated Press
Bob G. Dean Jr., the Baton Rouge businessman who owns the nursing homes from which the residents were evacuated, suggested in an interview with a local television station on Friday that the number of deaths was not atypical.
“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.
Officials confirmed on Friday that a fifth nursing home resident, a woman, died after she was transferred from the warehouse in Independence to a large shelter in Alexandria, La. The case remained under investigation.
Efforts by The New York Times to reach Mr. Dean on Friday were unsuccessful.
Mr. Dean also contended in the television interview that state investigators had illegally entered the warehouse site on Tuesday before they were expelled.
“The Fourth Amendment says that they have to have a warrant to come on the private property, much less seize persons or properties, so they came on illegally,” Mr. Dean said.
Mr. Dean has owned and operated nursing homes in Louisiana for decades and has accumulated a long history of disputes over safety issues and legal battles over his operations.
In a 1998 episode similar to this week’s tragedy, two nursing home residents died after being evacuated on buses without air-conditioning to a Baton Rouge warehouse owned by Mr. Dean during the approach of Hurricane Georges. He appealed a $1,500 state fine related to the death during that evacuation of an 86-year-old woman who had a heart attack; he succeeded in lowering the fine to $1,000 when a judge determined his company was not responsible for her death.
Ms. Duet, who was among those housed in the Independence warehouse, cried as she described the conditions to her daughter: It was loud. The food was bad. And the nursing home company had not accounted for basic sanitary needs, she said.
Many neighbors in Independence questioned why the nursing home residents had been brought to what turned out to be one of the hardest-hit regions in the state.Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times
“She told me she never brushed her teeth there,” said Ms. DeRosia, whose mother was eventually taken to a nursing home near Alexandria, La.
Arlene Clement Matherne, 64, of Thibodaux, La., had not spoken with her brother for more than a week. The last word of him was last Friday, when a woman from his nursing home in Houma, La., called her to tell her that they would be evacuating their patients, including her brother Perry Burnett.
Only when she saw a television report about the deaths did she realize her brother might be in peril. Finally, on Friday, she received a call from a rehabilitation center in Lake Charles, La., saying he was there. They had no paperwork on him and didn’t realize he was diabetic, she said.
Seven hours later, she heard from Mr. Burnett himself. “He was OK,” she said. “But he said his left foot is swollen, that it has some sores under it and that it’s hurting. That’s from the warehouse.”
State officials, alerted to the deteriorating conditions at the warehouse, relocated all the residents over the course of 24 hours beginning on Wednesday, and by Friday morning, empty wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and dirty face masks piled outside of the warehouse were the only remaining signs that they had been there.
Longtime residents said the warehouse had once been used as a stocking factory and later was used to manufacture aerosol cans before largely going dark, though they said it was still sometimes used to store emergency supplies.
Many neighbors in Independence questioned why the nursing home residents had been brought to what turned out to be one of the hardest-hit regions in the state.
In neighborhoods around the warehouse, the winds from Ida had blown the siding off mobile homes, pushed large trees through roofs and knocked branches onto power lines, sending splayed electrical wires across streets. A sign welcoming visitors to Independence was surrounded by trees snapped near the base of their trunks.
A block away from the warehouse, Lillian Danna, 92, who lives alone, stuck out the storm in the home where she has lived since the 1950s. As she cleared debris from her driveway on Friday, she described discovering that the storm had torn through her neighborhood. She awoke early on Monday, grabbing a flashlight to look outside, but it was too difficult to see clearly.
When daylight came, she discovered that a large tree had crushed a shed in the backyard, leaving her thanking God that it hadn’t hit her house. It was hours before the wind relented, allowing her to finally open her door.
“If it had fallen on my house, it would have probably killed me,” she said.
A few nights later, she was confused by the dozens of vehicles — shuttles, RVs and buses — that packed the neighborhood, keeping neighbors awake through the night as the nursing home residents were taken to safety.
Susan C. Beachy, Jack Begg and Alain Delaqueriere contributed research.