INDEPENDENCE, La. (AP) — Four nursing home residents in Louisiana died after being evacuated during Hurricane Ida to a warehouse where conditions were later determined to be unhealthy and unsafe, according to state health officials who said Thursday that they had launched an investigation into the facility.
A total of 843 residents from seven nursing facilities — all operated by one owner — were moved to the Waterbury Companies, Inc. warehouse in the town of Independence before Ida made landfall, Louisiana Department of Health spokesperson Aly Neel said. When the hurricane hit, conditions quickly deteriorated, she said.
“We know that water did enter the building,” Neel told The Associated Press, adding that there were also problems with electricity generators. “We’ve confirmed that conditions are not safe. We’ve confirmed that residents are no longer receiving access to critical services.”
Neel said the health department received reports of people lying on mattresses on the floor, not being fed or changed and not being socially distanced to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which is currently ravaging the state.
“I would not have wanted my mother or grandmother to be in those type of conditions,” Independence Police Chief Frank Edwards told WVUE-TV.
Edwards said the warehouse was set up to receive 300 to 350 people, but the number quickly ballooned to more than 800.
The police chief confirmed that some residents were on air mattresses on the floor, that trash receptacles were too small and that there were some issues with the restrooms. He said generators at the warehouse also stopped working a couple of times, and that in general, "conditions became unacceptable.”
When a large team of state health inspectors showed up on Tuesday to investigate the warehouse, the nursing homes' owner demanded that they leave immediately, Neel said. She identified the owner as Bob Dean. Dean did not immediately respond Thursday to a telephone message the AP left at a number listed for him.
The inspectors returned Wednesday and began relocating residents. In a news release, the health department said 12 needed to be hospitalized immediately.
Officials used ambulances and buses to transfer the residents, with a little more than a handful still waiting to be moved as of Thursday afternoon, Neel said. Early Thursday evening, 10 ambulances could be seen leaving the warehouse, located next to a water tower and about 50 yards (46 meters) from a railroad station. A handful of wheelchairs were standing near the entrance to the warehouse.
The health department said in a news release that it is continuing to investigate and that officials “will be taking action against these nursing facilities.”
Police Chief Edwards was hesitant to assign any blame, however, saying that it appeared as though “everybody was doing the best they could under the circumstances.”
“I have no idea what the situation or circumstances were when they evacuated all of those people,” he said. “They may have been prepared for two nursing homes and had six more in danger. Let’s assume they had more to evacuate than they had planned for and they had to decide whether to move them to the facility they had or not evacuate them at all.”
Deslatte reported from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Associated Press writers Chevel Johnson in New Orleans and Jeff Martin in Marietta, Georgia, contributed to this report.
Rebecca Santana And Melinda Deslatte, The Associated Press