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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) — New Orleans leaders are vowing to protect elderly residents after multiple deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

When the power went out, five residents died and hundreds of others had to be evacuated by the city health department.

Orleans Parish leaders began inspecting senior living facilities in the early days following Hurricane Ida. City Health Director, Dr. Jennifer Avegno is vowing there are lessons to be learned and policy changes are likely. Avegno adds that this was the first major test on all systems since Hurricane Katrina.

Unlike nursing homes, senior living facilities are not governed under strict guidelines during emergencies.

“That’s the policy gap that we, the city, this administration, city council, state and probably federal partners as well are going to look to address,” Avegno said.

In all, 32 properties were inspected across Orleans Parish the last several days. Nine were ordered closed by the city’s health department after five people were found dead and hundreds others had to be evacuated.

“We’re documenting everything that we find and it is quite possible that some of what we find might turn into adjudications, fines, issues with occupational licenses in the future,” said Peter Bowen, Deputy CAO, Business and External Services.

The goal is for Orleans Parish to create a standard of care for residents living independently at facilities. Some property managers claimed they only needed water and food on site, but many properties had greater needs.

“We are continuing to check in with properties we have been to in order to make sure conditions have improved or that they have everything that they need,” Avegno said.

Council member Kristin Palmer plans to pursue emergency and evacuation mandates for independent living apartments and senior centers in New Orleans.

In a release, Palmer said:

The ordinance would apply the current emergency standards for nursing homes to all state-licensed residential care facilities, as well as independent living facilities that fall outside of State regulations. If approved by the Council, the law would require the following for all such New Orleans facilities with six or more residents:

• Sufficient generator and fuel capacity to power heating, cooling, elevators, lighting for emergency exits, and communications systems for 96 hours in a power outage.
• A point of contact who must remain on-site at all times (24/7) during declared emergencies.
• Daily updates to the Mayor’s Office of Homeland Security once an emergency order has been activated and immediate updates in case of evacuation.
• Annual City licensure.

“I witnessed the body of one of the elderly tenants being removed from Annunciation Inn, and it was beyond heartbreaking,” Councilmember Palmer said. “One death is one too many, and we lost five of our city’s most vulnerable residents due to negligence and unacceptable living conditions in these facilities. Basic needs for homebound, disabled and elderly tenants were left unmet. Many of them were stranded in their dark, hot rooms with no access to food and water. It’s unacceptable, and we have to demand that the owners and operators are held accountable, but at the very least, make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The City of New Orleans’ Department of Health conducted wellness checks at multiple senior living centers days after Hurricane Ida and found that eight facilities were deemed unfit for post-storm occupancy. Queen Lassai lives at one of the apartment buildings where the city provided wellness checks.

“We have been suffering. But we have water, food and ice because people like Kristin Palmer have been coming to check on us,” Lassai said.”Ensuring that the management and the owners provide basic amenities isn’t a lot to ask. I’m glad someone is standing with us and looking out for us.”

The law would also require all residential facilities to provide a quarterly testing report to the City of New Orleans Department of Safety and Permits verifying the functionality and capacity of necessary generators.

“These private apartment facilities hide under the umbrella of independent living facilities, and they’re not,” Councilmember Palmer continued. “They have folks who can’t get around without assistance or an elevator. We have to ensure that the owners and operators of the facilities are held to the same standard as our city’s nursing homes and senior centers, where mechanics are in place during and after a disaster.”