NEW ORLEANS — Photographer Mark Mascar had been in New Orleans only a year when Hurricane Ida blew through.
But the storm wasn’t the real eye-opener for the British citizen. That came from a new friend he met when he went to charge his phone at Finn McCool’s Irish Pub a week after the storm.
A 66-year-old man was also charging his phone at the neighborhood bar on the morning of Sept. 5, and he told Mascar how he and other seniors had been living in sweltering squalor at Saint Michael Senior Housing complex on Tulane Avenue for the whole week.
“It was horrifically hot,” said the man, who did not want to be identified because he feared retribution from the apartment complex’s management. “The refuse from the trash was in front of the building, so when you got a nice breeze, you got a nice whiff of the refuse that was piling up in front of the building and along the sides.”
When the two parted ways after about an hour, Mascar promised to cook his new buddy a turkey and fresh vegetables. But when he came to deliver the food a few hours later, his friend and the rest of the tenants at Saint Michael were gone.
That’s because the man was met back at his apartment building by New Orleans police and an RTA bus full of his fellow residents. City officials told him he couldn’t go up to his apartment. Without warning and after a week living without power, he would be taken to the Morial Convention Center and evacuated.
Saint Michael Senior Housing is one of more than 30 privately owned and operated senior apartment complexes in the city of New Orleans. Some are known to city officials, others are not. City Health Director Jennifer Avegno said some were in close contact with the Health Department ahead of Ida, but her staff began hearing of problems at more and more places as the week wore on.
Five residents at four senior housing complexes were found dead in the days after the storm – two at Flint Goodridge Apartments, one at Nazareth Inn, one at the Christopher Inn and one at the Annunciation Inn.
City Councilman Jay Banks said Flint Goodridge had a generator that was running, but he said it wasn’t hooked up to the building’s air conditioning.
“That was like being in a horror movie,” Banks said. “So, at the end of the day, we've got to make sure that these facilities that are catering to our most vulnerable citizens have what they need to make sure that they can protect them.”
Saint Michael is also in Banks’ district, but he said he was not made aware of the problems there. Avegno said the city did emergency evacuations at 10 complexes in the first four days after the storm, but visited more than 30 by the end of the first week and evacuated Saint Michael on Sunday, Sept. 5.
Saint Michael is managed by Multifamily Management Inc., out of Mobile, Ala. The property manager, Annette Ducote, spoke with WWL-TV on the phone briefly before hanging up and declining to say more. She said the tenants at Saint Michael were “taken very good care of, but we did not have a backup generator.”
“They should have had backup generators similar to what they had over at the Brown Derby Superstore,” the anonymous resident said, referring to the gas station and convenience store directly across the street from Saint Michael. “That should have been in place.”
Independent, privately run senior living facilities are not required to have backup generators or an evacuation plan. Many of them received federal Housing and Urban Development multifamily housing funds, but HUD only issues guidelines for evacuations and disaster preparedness, not mandates.
Banks and other city officials say it’s past time to step in and require more from the private companies that own the facilities.
“I don't know what legally we can require, but I know morally we have a responsibility to make sure that that never happens to your mother, to your mother, to my mother, grandmother, aunt, neighbor, anybody else,” he said. “We cannot let this happen again.”
When Mascar tried to deliver the food he’d promised his new friend, he found the place shut down. He said that’s when he got worried.
“When I heard people have been found dead, that accelerated my anxiety for this guy's safety,” he said. “You know, I'm thinking, is it one of these places where he is?”
He finally found his friend in Shreveport, evacuated by bus to a state shelter at an old, abandoned Sam’s Club. He told Mascar he felt like a prisoner at the Jewella Avenue Shelter, where he said he was constantly being frisked by State Police and Probation and Parole officers.
The state Department of Children and Family Services, which runs the shelters, said that was for evacuees’ protection, with State Police coordinating security and various other state agencies helping out because of the storm.
A DCFS spokesperson said the facility provided cots, bedding and pillows for 1,000 evacuees, a reduced number because of pandemic restrictions.
The evacuee who spoke to WWL-TV also complained the shelter bathrooms were as squalid as what he had left behind at Saint Michael.
“They had feces, they had urine all over the floor, all over the toilet seat area,” he said. “With the doors closed you could smell the stench, the raunch, just wafting out.”
DCFS said the facilities can’t be kept “pristine” with so many residents, but vendors did clean the restrooms on a regular basis.
The evacuees were at the shelter for more than a week. They got yellow wrist bands, left over from previous Texas evacuees, to return home this Monday, Sept. 13.
Mascar said he has a close friend for life now, and he wants to keep fighting to help improve conditions at the senior housing complexes so he won’t face this the next time the power goes out.
“All the expense of moving people, place them in the warehouse, shipping them out on buses, RTA busses, all that expense could have been avoided with just one generator,” he said.