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“No Lights, Elevators, Ventilation, Water”: Dr. Jennifer Avegno On The Evacuation Of Seniors Apartment Buildings After Ida

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Courtesy of NOLA Ready
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The mayor of New Orleans and other city leaders are promising new regulations for seniors apartments, after the city’s health department evacuated around 600 residents from eight facilities in the wake of Hurricane Ida — and five residents died.

The deaths are being investigated by the coroner’s office. Six of the eight facilities are managed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Reporter Rosemary Westwood spoke with the director of the city’s health department, Dr. Jennifer Avengo, about how the evacuations unfolded.

Rosemary Westwood: When did you first suspect that people living in these senior apartments were at risk?

Dr. Jennifer Avegno: Well, we know that our elderly and those with mobility challenges are always at risk from a prolonged power outage or any disruption in resources for a significant length of time after a disaster. And so when we would reach out, we would get requests for 'Oh, we need food, water ice.' After the first day or two, we're really having some concerns because it was hard to get in touch with some folks. We were starting to get reports coming in of maybe there were people who needed more urgent help. And so around Tuesday or Wednesday, we decided that we had to put some more direct eyes on the ground. And when we did, that's when we realized that there were some significant problems at some of these locations with a lot of folks not having really even their basic needs being able to be met.

Let's talk about that first apartment building that the city evacuated, that was about 200 people that first day. Can you walk us through that first day? Where were you? What did you see?

Yeah, so our teams went out first to the Renaissance apartment buildings and to Annunciation Inn. I started getting immediate reports of, ‘We need to go door to door, we need to not only just knock on people's doors, but to open every door, and to make sure there's not folks trapped inside. And we're going to need buses now to get all these people out. And these buildings are emergent threats to life and safety.’ No power, no lights, no elevators working, no ventilation, water. We've got some that had water all over the floor, which was incredibly unsafe. And then certainly any building in which we unfortunately discovered a dead body. Clearly that's a building that's not safe.

And in terms of what people themselves were dealing with, were they without food and water, were some dealing with heat exhaustion? What were the conditions that people were facing?

Yeah, obviously, some of them were very hot. Most of them had some degree of food and water. But in some cases, there just was not staff on site who had checked on them. So you know, some of them who had difficulty with needing help to go to the bathroom, assistance to get places, were having a lot of trouble doing that in the dark. I don't have a number of how many went to hospitals. It wasn't a large number, I know that. But there were certainly some who had chronic medical conditions that had deteriorated because of the lack of resources. A lot of folks were scared. They were without all of their supports and services. And some of our elderly folks were really tough. And some of them, even despite these conditions, did not want to go. We had to really talk to them and say, 'Look, it's not safe for you here, we want to get you to a place of shelter and comfort.' In the face of that some of them really, you know, it took a little while to make up their mind, I should say.

Were these people abandoned? In your mind, you mentioned that management was not around. And I know that there was trouble on the city's part trying to reach management at some of these facilities.

I think there is the letter of the law, you know. These are not nursing homes, they are not assisted living facilities. So there's really not a standard for these types of residences that says in a disaster, this level of service must be provided. I do think, though, that there is a moral obligation to understand that human dignity sort of trumps all of that. And just to have the consideration for, if this was my father, my grandfather, what would I want to do to make sure they were OK? I will say there were some real heroes. There were some wonderful building security personnel, who in some cases might have been the only people on site and were absolutely committed, even though they had almost no resources, to doing whatever they could to make sure people got through. That really wasn't their job. They just felt so compassionate towards the residents that even if their shift was over, even if, you know, they weren't the property managers or the owners or the folks that are getting paid rent, they felt the moral obligation to do whatever they could and in a lot of cases, when we got to these buildings, they were they folks who rushed us in to make sure we got to the sickest people first. So I have to give them a lot of credit. They didn't have to do that, but they did.

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