Nursing home evacuees called 911 from fetid warehouse where 4 died, but EMTs turned away
The smell was the first thing to strike the mayor.
A stench of urine and feces radiated through the late summer heat Tuesday evening as a small group of officials walked up to a nondescript warehouse in Independence, Louisiana, alongside Mayor Jim Paine.
The group walked past a line of blue portable toilets to their right and a cooking station to their left, across an area littered with trash and straight through an unlocked door into the large facility, once used to manufacture roach spray and now the subject of 911 calls and a rescue operation in recent days.
“The smell was just awful,” Paine said. “We could smell it outside before we walked through the door.”
Inside, 843 elderly and infirm people languished on mattresses on the cement floor, the air stagnant and reeking of human waste. Residents of seven nursing facilities had been evacuated to the Tangipahoa Parish warehouse on Aug. 27, two days before Hurricane Ida slammed into the Louisiana coast.
At least four people died as conditions deteriorated through the week, state health officials reported Thursday, and resource-strapped Louisiana removed 843 patients from the Ida evacuation facility.
The state said three of the deaths were related to the storm, including a 77-year-old man from Houma, a 59-year-old woman from Harvey and a 52-year-old man from Orleans Parish. Names and exact causes of death have not been released.
Gov. John Bel Edwards on Thursday said investigations into the situation were ongoing at the state and federal level.
“We’re going to do a full investigation into whether these facilities, the owner of the facilities, failed to keep residents safe and whether he intentionally obstructed efforts to check in on them and determine what the conditions were in the shelter. If warranted, we will take aggressive legal actions against any responsible parties,” Bel Edwards said.
Paine became aware of the warehouse-turned-shelter on Aug. 26, when former mayor Angelo Mannino asked to meet with him and city police officials. At the meeting, Mannino asked Paine to lend city police resources for security at the site. Paine declined, given the relatively small size of the police department. Efforts to reach Mannino for comment have been unsuccessful.
The city, which Paine stresses was not connected to the shelter site, began receiving 911 calls about the warehouse after residents were moved in around Aug. 27, Paine said.
When EMTs arrived on the scene, they were turned away, officials said.
“I think the constituents in the beds had cellphones and were making calls for help,” Paine said.
As the 911 calls continued, Paine grew more concerned. He contacted State Rep. Nicholas Muscarello, and the two organized a group that attempted to tour the facility on Tuesday. They walked through the back door and made it halfway through the warehouse when they were stopped by a facility director, Muscarello said. State officials say health department employees were part of the group and also expelled from the warehouse.
“At that point, I said, ‘I’ve seen enough,’” Muscarello said.
Muscarello made immediate calls to Legislative leadership as news of the shelter’s conditions spread. By Wednesday, the state had ordered a phalanx of ambulances to begin evacuating patients.
Muscarello said if he had family in the facility, he would be “furious.”
“It was littered in trash. It was filthy,” he said. “It wasn’t humane the way they were treated.”
A review of the seven nursing homes that evacuated to the Independence warehouse shows years of low ratings and safety complaints. All of the businesses are owned by Baton Rouge businessman Bob Dean.
All but one of the seven nursing homes ranked “much below average” on Medicare.gov, a rating based on a nursing home’s performance in health inspections, staffing and quality of resident care measures. Only West Jefferson Health Care Center ranked “below average.”
Edwards Thursday he had “no doubts” staff working at the facility did “everything they could under those conditions” to provide the best care they could, but leadership should have moved people out of the building or asked for help.
“I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure this facility never operates again in Tangipahoa Parish and make every attempt to hold the owner accountable to providing proper health care services to his nursing home patients,” Muscarello said.
Reporter Katherine Burgess contributed to this report.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or email@example.com.