INDEPENDENCE, La. — State health records, witness accounts and two lawsuits filed this week paint the picture of a deteriorating evacuation site in Independence, La. where more than 800 nursing home residents weathered Hurricane Ida, many of them on twin-sized blow up mattresses on the floor.
“There was trash full of urine and feces stacked in a corner. And the place just smelled horrible,” said Nathalie Henderson, a nurse at the warehouse.
She described air thick with the overwhelming smell of urine and feces with piles of waste soiled with it sitting in a corner for days.
“They kept rolling in more residents. I'm like, 'Oh my God.' We had to keep pushing the residents tighter and tighter to fit everyone in,” she continued, “I felt like I was in tears. Like it was very overwhelming.”
Henderson told WWL-TV’s Mike Perlstein the conditions went from bad to worse as the warehouse as one part of the building started taking on water. State inspection reports and two lawsuits filed on behalf of the residents tell a strikingly similar tale.
Dozens of residents called 911 from the warehouse for a variety of problems. One told operators she feared she had been kidnapped.
And by the morning after the storm, August 30, text records from state health officials indicate emergency responders started to sound the alarm about the conditions at the facility when it started taking on water.
Records released by the Louisiana Department of Health do not reveal who sent or received the text messages. But one reads, “The Bob Dean facility taking on 8 inches of water.”
Bob Dean is the owner of the seven New Orleans-area nursing homes that were evacuated to the Independence site ahead of Ida.
Another text message exchanged with health officials reads, “Residents sleeping on mattresses on the floor!!!”
When inspectors with LDH informed Dean they were headed to inspect the warehouse site, he left a threatening voicemail.
“If you come one foot on my property, you will be arrested for trespassing. I have not proper charting for transfer, plus none of my residents have anything to do with COVID and I do not want them exposed. This will be against the federal law,” Dean says in the recording.
Dean then exchanged a barrage of profanity-laden text messages with health officials claiming they were under a “federal restraining order” and that they can’t go in.
But inspectors did go in along side inspectors with the Office of the Louisiana Fire Marshal.
While Dean has maintained in brief interviews with journalists that the facility is not a warehouse, photographs taken by Fire Marshal inspectors tell a different story.
One even shows puddles on the floor in the area where the warehouse took on water. The photos show ceiling sections water-logged and crumbling with air mattresses crammed together in a tight space for staff to sleep in.
Scenes from the Independence warehouse where residents claim nightmarish conditions
The photos also reveal a row of showers brought in for residents to use and a neighboring row of portable toilets.
Those toilets are featured in a new lawsuit filed in Orleans Parish Civil District Court on behalf of five of the residents and their families.
“They were brought into a warehouse that's only supposed to house a few hundred people and there was close to 900 of them there. Nine hundred with 12 port-a-lets. Let's think about that, 12 port-a-lets for 900 people,” said well-known personal injury attorney Morris Bart, who filed the suit.
Bart claims some of his clients couldn’t make it to them and they were left lingering in soiled diapers because of a shortage of staff.
“Many of the residents, including our clients, are lying in their own urine and feces with nobody to remove them. It was absolutely horrific. And to add insult to injury, the loved ones of these residents didn't know where they were,” Bart said.
Many of the families were told when their loved ones entered the nursing homes that they would be evacuated to a similar nursing home in Plaquemine, La. Others were told they were being taken to an alternate facility. None said they were aware their loved ones would end up warehoused weathering a Category 4 storm.
Another group of residents at the facility filed a class-action lawsuit against Dean this week. He did not respond to our request for comment.