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After Ida deaths, New Orleans officials expected to approve regulations for senior apartments

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Rosemary Westwood
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A photo of Annunciation Inn, a Section 8 public housing option for elderly residents and people with disabilities that was evacuated after Hurricane Ida.

New Orleans City Council is expected to adopt a range of new requirements for seniors’ living facilities on Thursday, after hundreds of vulnerable residents were left without power and five died in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

“No one wants to have a repeat of what happened during Hurricane Ida,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the city’s health department, which drafted some of the regulations. “Quite frankly, the gaps in many of our systems were exposed.”

Six of seven city council members have already signed on to some or all of the proposed changes, which are scheduled for a vote during Thursday’s meeting.

The new regulations — spearheaded by Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer — will require a license for any housing facility, many of which are publicly subsidized, with six or more units designated for people 55 years of age or older or people with a disability.

Those licenses come with a host of new requirements designed to protect the lives of vulnerable people with few resources during a disaster or emergency. They include a census of residents before and during an emergency, disaster and evacuation plans and staff onsite during a disaster.

But one major item floated after the deaths is missing: the requirement to have a generator with enough capacity to power the building’s electrical needs, including heating and cooling systems.

In the days after Ida took out power across New Orleans, city officials found five people dead and evacuated 600 residents from a slew of apartment buildings, where many had been left to largely fend for themselves without working elevators or air conditioning. Some used wheelchairs and others required oxygen.

Excessive heat during Ida's long power outage across southeast Louisiana killed more people than any other cause from the storm — 13 of the 29 reported deaths. In every case, the person who died was over the age of 63.

Only the state government can require generators, Avegno said. Instead, buildings that do have generators will need to provide the city with detailed information on generator capacity, maintenance and fuel type. Without a back-up power source able to fuel elevators, emergency lights, heating and cooling, the regulations will require the buildings to be evacuated during an extended power outage.

Avegno said the change that could have the biggest impact is also one of the simplest: a dedicated point of contact who is then required to stay onsite at the facility during an emergency.

One of the major hurdles in Ida’s wake was that there wasn’t a clear line of communication between building managers and owners and the city, or a sense of who was responsible for getting residents out of sweltering apartments with little food or aid.

Christopher Homes — an agency of the Archdiocese of New Orleans — owns the majority of apartments that were evacuated by the city. Three people died in three separate Christopher Homes properties.

In a statement released after the evacuations, the agency said it had asked for help from the city but didn’t get a response. HRI Properties, a major developer, told NOLA.com that it took days for city officials to evacuate residents after it had requested help. A similar story of delayed aid came from HSI Management.

HRI Properties, which owns Flint Goodridge Apartments, where two people died after Ida, declined to comment pending a lawsuit over the deaths. Christopher Homes and Providence Community Housing, which manages its properties, did not respond to interview requests.

Doug Trivers, president of HSI Management, said security at one of their evacuated properties, Renaissance Place, stayed on site at the facility during Ida and staff evacuated. The building had a generator to run elevators and emergency lighting, but it ran out of fuel after five days.

“We were asking the city, the mayor's office, the city council, the health department, my people were calling every day to try to get someone over there to relocate the residents,” he said.

Trivers said HSI Management is glad to see new regulations come out of the disaster.

“We don't have the resources to evacuate 300 people in a storm like this — that's something the city would have to do,” he said. “So we're more than happy to work with the city, if it can mean that they'll get there sooner and get the people to safety.”

In the new regulations, the city can be called in to evacuate buildings, but owners will be charged for the service.

Trivers said the requirement to have staff on site during a declared emergency will be difficult. As Ida approached the coast, HSI Managements staff heeded Mayor Latoya Cantrell’s warning to get out, he said.

“We'll have to figure it out,” he said. “And it will be costly. Because I don't know how you can ask somebody to leave their family in an emergency and come to the property.”

Avegno said the changes are modeled on existing rules for nursing homes and the guidebook for properties providing Section 8 housing subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which describes what building owners should do in a disaster, but not what they are required to do.

The regulations shouldn’t just prevent another Ida-like outcome, Avegno added, but deaths from any other emergency or extreme climate event.

“This is the future of climate change. We're the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “So if you have large numbers of vulnerable residents in buildings that you're not sure what would happen to them during any kind of power outage or emergency, now's the time to learn from us and see what you can put in place so that no one has to live through this on their own.”

Rosemary Westwood is the public and reproductive health reporter for WWNO/WRKF. She was previously a freelance writer specializing in gender and reproductive rights, a radio producer, columnist, magazine writer and podcast host.

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