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‘People are going to die’: Few changes made since Ida to protect New Orleans’ most vulnerable

Shirley Holmes holds a picture of her wedding to her husband, Walter Holmes, who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in 2021.
Michael Isaac Stein
Shirley Holmes holds a picture of her wedding to her husband, Walter Holmes, who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in 2021.

Shirley Holmes said that above all, her husband of 42 years was two things: a joker and a dancer.

“Oh god, he could out-dance everyone,” she said. “We'd go to parties and they were just sitting and waiting for Walter to get there. He just wanted to dance and joke. I told him he missed his calling, he should have been a comedian. Waking up he had something funny to say, going to sleep had something funny to say. Just a lovable person.”

On a recent afternoon, when 66-year-old Holmes heard that her apartment building’s elevators were out, her mind raced to her husband, a dialysis and emphysema patient, and how they would survive the hurricane she momentarily believed was about to hit the city.

“I ran, thinking I have to get my husband and get out of here,” Holmes said.

When she got back to her apartment she remembered — there was no hurricane, and her husband was already dead. Holmes was having a flashback to September 2021, when Hurricane Ida caused a city-wide blackout that took 10 days to fix. Her husband, 62-year-old Walter Holmes, was one of 21 people in New Orleans whose deaths were associated with living conditions in the city after Ida, according to the city’s coroner.

“I mean, my mind flew back,” Holmes said through tears. She pointed to a book on her coffee table, “Losing Your Soulmate,” a recommendation from her therapist on top of the depression and anxiety medication she’s been prescribed since Hurricane Ida.

“I just don't feel like I’m healing at the pace I should be.”

Eight of the people that died in New Orleans following Ida, including Walter, were residents of independent-living apartments for seniors — the sites of some of the most brutal scenes following the storm. Unlike nursing homes, these independent living facilities aren’t regulated by the state and aren’t required to have things like generators, on-site staff or emergency relocation sites.

During the blackout, many of the buildings were left completely unstaffed, forcing residents to fend for themselves in the sweltering heat, some stuck on upper floors without access to food, water, medicine and other life-saving supplies. The city eventually evacuated hundreds of people from 10 senior facilities, but not until nearly a week after the storm.

“It was total chaos,” said Doc Porter, a resident of Peace Lake Tower in New Orleans East, one of the apartments the city evacuated.

Porter described seniors falling down dark stairways trying to get out, blind residents groping through the building and people unconscious in the hallways.

After the storm, City Council members and officials from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration swore to learn from Ida and improve. The city has made some changes, including passing a new law to regulate senior apartments and an update to the city’s evacuation plan. But some worry that the city has not made enough practical changes to avoid repeating history.

“Has anything really changed? Not really,” Howard Rodgers, executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging, told Verite. “The same thing is going to happen if another Ida comes through. People are going to die.”

After Ida, the council passed a new law requiring independent living facilities for seniors to obtain city-issued licenses, share emergency plans and coordinate with the city during disasters.

But nearly a year-and-a-half after the law went into effect, most remain unlicensed. And an overwhelming majority don’t appear to be following rules on coordinating with officials during emergencies.

Shirley Holmes' husband, Walter, died in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in 2021.

The city’s Health Department has a list of 67 facilities that are covered by the ordinance, according to spokesperson Isis Casanova. Just 26 of those, less than 40 percent of the total, were issued a license in 2022, the first year the law went into effect. Only 43 applied, Casanova said.

Those that applied but never received licenses had myriad issues in their applications, city documents show, including inaccuracies and missing information in their emergency plans. Responding to one application, an official simply wrote, “This is not an emergency plan.”

Participation appears to be even lower this year. The deadline to apply for a license was April 1, but only 40 facilities have applied so far, Casanova said.

Violations of the new law can lead to fines and license revocations. But punitive action hasn’t been taken yet, according to the city Health Department.

Facilities fail to comply with new law

Oak Villa Apartments in Algiers, where Holmes lived when her husband died, unsuccessfully applied for a permit last year and hasn’t applied for one this year. Holmes now lives in a different apartment, Capdau Homes in Gentilly, which has never applied for a license.

Both facilities are managed by Louisiana real estate firm Latter & Blum, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The list of unlicensed apartments includes many that receive government funding, like Peace Lake Tower, which receives federal housing funding and signed a 75-year agreement in 2020 with Finance New Orleans, a quasi-governmental agency whose board is appointed by the City Council, to pay a set annual property fee instead of local property taxes. The city evacuated Peace Lake Tower after Ida and shut it down for months due to storm damage.

The building’s management has never applied for a city operating license.

“They don't care about your laws, they don't care about senior citizens,” Porter said.

A spokesperson for the manager of Peace Lake Tower, Ohio-based The Millennia Companies, told Verite that the company planned to submit a late license application this year.

While less than half of facilities have gotten licenses, even fewer are following the new law’s requirement to coordinate with the city during declared emergencies. In December, when Cantrell signed an emergency declaration for an incoming cold front, only 12 facilities contacted the city at all, Casanova said.

Casanova said the department has tried to get voluntary compliance by sending letters and emails to covered facilities, holding an annual preparedness training and hosting 13 in-person meetings with facility managers.

“In addition, we are working with [the New Orleans Department of] Safety and Permits to create processes to issue and adjudicate violations,” the statement said.

Even when buildings are licensed, it doesn’t mean they have new equipment or plans to deal with lengthy emergencies. Verite reviewed the 46 emergency plans submitted with license applications in 2022, and found that only 19 buildings have generators, most of which can offer only limited power for a short period of time.

Overall, many of the emergency plans were clear, and even explicit, that the buildings would not be safe during strong storms, and that as independent living facilities, they aren’t ultimately responsible for the safety of their residents during emergencies.

“These properties and the staff that work in them do not provide direct care for residents,” reads the emergency plan for Villa St. Maurice, a 77-unit senior apartment building. “The residents of the facility are all independent, choose to live so and provide for their self-care,” the plan says. “They have been informed of the implications of not evacuating.”

The apartment building is managed by Christopher Homes, Inc., the housing arm of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. It was issued a license in 2022 and applied for one in 2023.

All of the facilities also appear to be in agreement that when emergencies arise, especially in the aftermath of storms, the responsibility for resident safety falls on the city — the police, fire department, EMS and other emergency workers.

Even the Cantrell administration acknowledges that if another storm like Ida comes, the city needs to have a much better response. But it's unclear if the city has followed through on the promise to craft a better response.

The one signature law passed after the storm hasn’t been implemented yet. And although the city has updated its evacuation plan, it’s been criticized by some experts as insufficient.

“Why the hell is the next one going to be any different?” Holmes asked.

The gap population

The majority of those who died after Ida, according to the coroner’s report, were over 65 or older, and only three were under 50. The city’s Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno told the City Council in 2021 that many of those who died during Ida were part of a “gap population” of medically vulnerable, but independently living, residents.

“The issue was that gap population, which we always knew existed,” she said.

Avegno said these residents are at particular risk because they are medically vulnerable, but don’t receive the care provided by nursing homes, which are required by state law to have constant medical staffing, generators and evacuation plans for residents.

Independent senior apartments aren’t regulated by the state like nursing homes are. They may offer subsidized housing or amenities tailored to older adults, but they don’t provide a high level of personal care. And their residents are largely expected to look after themselves with the help of friends and family.

Shirley Holmes holds a picture of her wedding to her husband, Walter Holmes, who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in 2021.

For Holmes, that arrangement worked for a long time.

“I took care of Walter for 16 years,” Holmes said.

But that level of self-reliance quickly dissipates during an emergency, when the daily services residents rely on to stay healthy suddenly disappear.

“They're independent, they can basically function on their own,” Rodgers said. “But actually they're only independent because they have use of an electric wheelchair or a breathing machine. If they don't have no power, then they become dependent.”

That’s exactly what happened to Holmes and her husband, Walter. Without power, stuck on the second floor of an apartment building with no working elevators, Walter started to deteriorate. He was rationing his oxygen and had missed a dialysis treatment.

“He kept saying, 'When can we get out of here because I need an oxygen treatment so bad.' I said,’Babe, I don't know what to do, we ran out of oxygen.’”

On the morning of Aug. 31, Holmes and her husband decided they had to get out. They had a car, but couldn’t find anyone to help get Walter down from the second floor without the elevators. She called 911 and 311 to see if the city could help, but they said they couldn’t send anyone.

“I [told Walter], ‘If I gotta put you on a blanket and pull you down, you'll have to be bumped down those stairs.’ And he said ‘whatever it takes to get us out of here.’”

Holmes started loading the car. But on one of her trips up to the apartment, she noticed his breathing sounded strange.

“He said, ‘My chest's hurting a little bit, I don't know what's going on but I feel bad,’” Holmes said. “I went to call somebody to help and he started kicking. I said what's the matter? And then he slumped over.”

She called 911, and a dispatcher told her to start doing CPR chest compressions.

“I don’t think I was doing it right,” Holmes said. “I did it for a long time.”

Eventually a neighbor took over for her, and later an ambulance came. Walter was declared dead at the hospital of heart failure.

“I never in my life dreamed that I would have to go to this,” Holmes said. “If you're old then you're gone, that's what it is to me. If you don’t have the energy and knowledge to help yourself, you're gone.”

Why couldn’t they evacuate vulnerable residents?

“Why couldn't they make the decision to get the sick and elderly folks out?” Holmes asked.

In the weeks after Ida, as the human cost became clear, many had a similar question. Even after the storm hit, it took days for the city to start getting people out. Twelve of the people who died, according to the coroner, died four or more days after the storm.

Part of the problem was that the storm took many in New Orleans by surprise. When it first began to form, Porter said, he didn’t think it would be very destructive.

“We thought it was going to be a little blowover storm,” Porter said. “We didn't know it was going to shut down the city.”

The storm grew quickly, eventually developing into a Category 4, and by the time the severity of the storm was clear, it was too late.

The city needs 72 hours to implement a mandatory evacuation, which triggers a government effort to directly evacuate up to 50,000 residents and set up care for the evacuated. The day before Hurricane Ida made landfall, Cantrell told residents it was too late and urged anyone who could to get out on their own.

As always, not everyone could get out for a variety of reasons. Some didn’t have a car or couldn’t afford to. Holmes had a car, but for her, it was dangerous to leave for the same reason it was dangerous to stay — she had a medically vulnerable husband to take care of.

Evacuating is risky for a man like Walter. If they left, would they find a place to stay where they could get his dialysis treatments, medications and oxygen tank refills? What if they couldn’t find a place to stay at all? Or got stuck on the highway?

“What we were mainly thinking about was staying where we're already close to the doctors and the clinics and stuff like that,” Holmes said. “They said things were going to open back up. But they didn't.”

Ida tore through New Orleans, taking down all eight of the transmission lines that bring electricity into the city. Debris made roads impassable, and stores and pharmacies and other vital services remained closed.

“I’m listening to the news and just hoping and praying that they're sending cars out to get us,” Holmes said. “Nothing. We heard nothing. Everything was a standstill.”

It took about four days for the city to even start checking up on the senior facilities, at least a day after neighboring Jefferson Parish had already begun evacuating apartment building residents.

An admitted weakness of the city’s traditional hurricane planning is that it centers on situations where the city has enough time to try to get everyone out before a storm. New Orleans is much less prepared for situations where thousands of residents are stranded in an uninhabitable city.

Scientists say these quickly intensifying storms become more frequent with climate change.

“We want to really look at the entire system to adapt it to the way we think disasters are going to happen in the future,” Avegno told the council in 2021

The city has made some changes. Along with the new law on senior living licensure, the city also updated its main hurricane planning document, the City Assisted Evacuation plan, to include for the first time a “Rapid Intensification Contingency” for storms like Ida. It includes suggestions such as prioritizing medically vulnerable residents for evacuation, and adds plans for a post-storm evacuation if the city remains uninhabitable.

But some disaster-planning experts told WWNO in 2022 that they were skeptical of the plan. They pointed out that unlike many of the city’s promises for a typical evacuation, the rapid intensification contingency plan doesn’t actually commit the city to doing anything.

“This section describes operations that, by virtue of the situation, must be inherently flexible and open to adaptation,” the plan says. “The operations described here represent proposed options, but may not be appropriate or feasible for all storms.”

For example, the plan says that in the aftermath of storms, it might set up a refuge of last resort for residents, but it might not. That lack of clarity can be a problem for residents trying to plan.

Holmes said that among residents in her current building, with hurricane seasons just around the corner, many aren’t clear on how the next storm will be any different from Ida.

“We're all talking about if something happens and a hurricane comes,” Holmes said. I can help myself. And I can help anybody that can get in my car. But I can't help everybody.”.”

Because of the vagueness of the city’s plans, and the unpredictable and varying nature of emergencies, it’s impossible to predict whether the city’s response will be more effective next time.

“The gaps will reveal themselves when a storm hits,” Rodgers said.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that a WWNO story was published in 2021. It was published in 2022. This story has been updated.

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