6 nursing home evacuees die under squalid conditions in Tangipahoa Parish, officials say
Parish president blames operator of assisted living centers for ‘shameful’ treatment of seniors
INDEPENDENCE, La. (WVUE) - Six elderly people evacuated from Louisiana nursing homes and crammed into a temporary warehouse shelter without beds as Hurricane Ida approached have died, state and local officials confirmed.
The local police chief overseeing the jurisdiction told Fox 8′s Lee Zurik in an exclusive interview that he isn’t certain an investigation is necessary.
Meanwhile, the Louisiana attorney general’s office has launched an investigation.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Tangipahoa Parish President Robby Miller decried the treatment of the seniors, and three of the deaths have been classified as storm-related by the parish coroner. They said they had called for inspections of the temporary shelter where the seniors were brought on Aug. 27, after hearing reports of squalid conditions, but that they were turned away and expelled from the property.
The LDH said it has been working to relocate 843 nursing home patients, starting with the most vulnerable, who were evacuated from seven assisted-living facilities in Orleans, Jefferson, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. According to records held by the Louisiana Secretary of State, each of the facilities is operated by New Orleans businessman Bob Dean.
Identities of the deceased seniors and the days of their deaths were not immediately disclosed. The LDH identified three of them as a 59-year-old woman from Jefferson Parish, a 52-year-old man from New Orleans and a 77-year-old man from Terrebonne Parish. The Rapides Parish Coroner on Friday confirmed the death of a fifth evacuee, whose age was not yet available. On Saturday, the LDH reported the death of another nursing home evacuee who had been moved to the Independence shelter.
LDH Director Dr. Joseph Kanter said 14 more of the evacuees have been hospitalized.
“There are just no words,” Kanter said.
The temporary shelter in Independence was used to house senior evacuees from River Palms Nursing and Rehab and Maison Orleans Healthcare Center in New Orleans; the Maison DeVille Nursing Homes of Harvey and Terrebonne Parish; Park Place Healthcare Nursing Home and West Jefferson Health Care Center of Jefferson Parish; and South Lafourche Nursing and Rehab.
Tangipahoa Parish president Miller said, “We are terribly sorry about this, especially to the families who lost their loved ones. We had no authority or jurisdiction over this. But red flags went up when we first heard it was supposed to be 200 people or 300 people and next thing we knew it was 800. We were the ones who called the Department of Health and the fire marshal and tried to get this looked at.
“I want to be clear: This was not something permitted by the parish. This was a person who chose Independence as this backup location. It’s not ours at all.”
The Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office said the Independence Police Department would be the agency in charge of investigating the deadly situation. But in an astonishing interview with WVUE-Fox 8′s Zurik, Independence Police Chief Frank Edwards said he had not concluded an investigation was needed.
“I’m not aware of an investigation. ... I don’t mean to be crass, but under the circumstances those numbers (at least four dead) do not strike me as being unusual,” Edwards said. “I’m not apologizing for anyone. I was there, and I wouldn’t have wanted my mother or grandmother to be in those conditions. I just don’t think with the resources I have right now that an investigation would be the best way of using them.”
When pressed by Zurik, Edwards insisted, “I am not OK with this. But I was in the Army and there’s a saying that all plans go astray once the first shot is fired. Whatever the facts are now will still be the facts next week. I see no need at this time to be pointing fingers.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards expressed a different view at a news conference later Thursday afternoon.
“We’re going to do a full investigation into whether the owner of these facilities failed to keep these residents safe, and into whether he intentionally obstructed efforts to check in on them and to determine what the conditions were in the shelter,” the governor said. “And if warranted, we will take aggressive legal action against any responsible party.”
Miller said that even with more than 800 evacuees, the facility was still under capacity by state shelter rules.
“But it was the conditions that concerned us,” Miller said. “There weren’t beds, there were mattresses on the floor. People were not spread out as they should have been. We wouldn’t have wanted our family members or anyone’s family members in there. ... These people need all the care and concern that the actual nursing home has.”
The LDH said it was troubled by the reports of the squalid conditions and attempted to assess the situation on Tuesday.
“Upon hearing reports of deteriorating conditions at the facility after Hurricane Ida made landfall, LDH inspectors promptly visited the site but were expelled from the property and prevented from conducting a full assessment on Tuesday,” the LDH said in a statement.
“We have significant concerns about conditions in this facility.”
Dean, the operator of the seven nursing homes that sent patients to Independence, said elderly deaths are not unusual in any facility.
“Normally, we lose two to three a day because they are very ill,” Dean told Fox 8. “I did the best that I could. I’m the only man that has a private evacuation center from Texas all the way to Florida. ... That first day cost me over a million dollars to evacuate. One million dollars, and the government never pays me anything. I just do it because I have to save people.”
Miller said it was his understanding that many of the evacuees were moved again Wednesday and Thursday to a safer location in Alexandria. He also said he believes Dean needs to be held accountable.
“We were very clear to him that something had to change” in the facility, Miller said. “It’s shameful. And he shouldn’t be allowed to be in this business any more.”
Fox 8′s Lee Zurik, Cody Lillich and Olivia Vidal contributed to this report.
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