• Swamp Watch

Ida Wasn't First: The Troubled History of Louisiana Nursing Homes and Hurricanes

The Hurricane Ida nursing home tragedy isn't the first time Louisiana nursing homes failed their patients during a Hurricane.

Hurricane Ida will forever be remembered as a life-altering natural disaster for Louisianans. The storm decimated our coast, destroyed small towns, and left hundreds of thousands without power, and water, for weeks. While we took in the natural disaster as we lived it, many of us were even more horrified to learn of the man-made disaster unfolding in Independence, Louisiana.

That was the site of a warehouse that housed residents from seven nursing homes across the state, a site we now know was responsible for the deaths of at least 7 senior citizens. Nearly 850 residents, from seven nursing homes, were jammed into a "leaky" warehouse, "full of urine and feces". Both Governor John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry have called for, or begun, investigations of the 7 nursing homes, and the Louisiana Department of Health has revoked their licenses, despite LDH having signed off on the warehouse evacuation plan. The LDH and the nursing homes’ owner are now being sued over the plan. The owner is fighting to get his licenses reinstated.

Sadly, this was far from the first time we watched a man-made disaster unfold at Louisiana nursing homes as a hurricane bore down. Just last year, after Hurricane Laura ravaged Lake Charles, dozens of senior citizens were abandoned at two facilities for up to 3 days, "without medication, water, food, or electricity". Residents had been told to anticipate evacuation before the storm struck, however only one bus came, evacuating just half of the residents. Even worse, when volunteers attempted to evacuate those residents post-storm, they were repeatedly abandoned, kicked off buses, and turned away.

Well before the issues with Ida and Laura, the nation was gripped in 2005 with the disasters that unfolded at several New Orleans area nursing homes that failed to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Katrina, despite a mandatory evacuation order in the city. Most famously, the owners of St. Rita’s Nursing Home in Violet were charged, and later acquitted, on 35 counts of negligent homicide. Despite having submitted an evacuation plan, as required, the home failed to implement it. The result was ghastly: 35 residents abandoned, only to die as floodwaters filled the facility. While the most infamous and troubling, St. Rita’s wasn’t the only nursing home to fail its residents, and their families, during Hurricane Katrina.

At least 132 deaths during Hurricane Katrina can be tied to nursing homes, many coming in Orleans Parish, which was under a mandatory evacuation order. In addition to the 35 at St. Rita’s, 9 patients died at the Bethany Home in New Orleans, with another 10 who had been evacuated unable to be located two-weeks after the storm. In the year before Katrina, this home had been cited with 23 deficiencies, more than twice the normal rate for a Louisiana nursing home. The Lafon Nursing Facility, also in New Orleans, had 14 patients die after not evacuating. At Maison Hospitaliere in New Orleans, 4 patients died after not evacuating. All three of the latter un-evacuated homes were in New Orleans, which again faced a mandatory evacuation order.

As the state reckons with the man-made disaster at the warehouse in Independence, we cannot forget the tragedies that occurred before it. Louisiana’s nursing homes have long been a source of unnecessary suffering, abuse, and death before what occurred during Hurricane Ida. In future pieces, we will examine the political influence of the nursing home industry, issues that have occurred outside of just hurricanes, and solutions that may have stopped these preventable man-made disasters.

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