NEW ORLEANS – Five days after Hurricane Ida swept through New Orleans and left the city in darkness, 86-year-old Eddie Gentry sat in his sweltering eighth-floor apartment, fearing he might be out of breath.
Mr. Gentry opened his windows to get some wind, but the two critical machines that help him breathe were useless in his apartment because he had no power. He thought about going down the street and walking a few blocks to the French Quarter, where power was restored Wednesday night, but the building’s elevators weren’t working and he doubted he would be able to walk down eight flights of stairs with his oxygen tank. and the nebulizer. bringing asthma medication to his lungs.
“My breath became heavy, heavy, heavy,” recalled Mr Gentry on Sunday. “I felt like my condition was going to kill me.”
On Saturday, the sixth day without power, Mr. Gentry and hundreds of his neighbors were rescued by workers from the New Orleans health department, who evacuated residents of eight apartment buildings for elderly people it said were unsafe.
Five people had died in the eight buildings, city officials said, including one person in the Christopher Inn, the nine-story concrete building where Mr Gentry lives. That building and five others deemed unsafe are run by Christopher Homes, a Catholic Church housing program for low-income seniors.
“I am deeply concerned to have seen the conditions of these private apartments where some of our most elderly and vulnerable members of the community live,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, who heads the New Orleans health department, described what she said was a “failure of these facility operators to adequately prepare and protect their residents.”
Sarah MacDonald, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said in a statement that Christopher Homes had urged residents to evacuate, but the housing program could not close the buildings without a mandatory evacuation order, which neither the state nor the city had issued. . Ms. MacDonald did not specifically respond to complaints about the poor conditions in the apartments, but said the city took days to respond to Christopher Homes’ pleas for assistance in helping the 286 residents who did not evacuate.
As the massive power outage in Louisiana lasted into day seven on Sunday, the disproportionate effect on New Orleans’ elderly residents came into stark contrast. The deaths in the eight apartment buildings, where residents live independently, followed the deaths of seven people who had been transferred from nursing homes in New Orleans to a warehouse that appeared to lack basic hygiene.
More than 100,000 electric customers in New Orleans — about half of the city’s total customers — were still without power on Sunday. Entergy, which supplies electricity to New Orleans, said it plans to restore service to most of the city by Wednesday, and utilities could be seen pulling branches from downed power lines in a frenzy to get the lights back on. to do.
But forecasters warned that New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana could feel as high as 105 degrees on Sunday, a level deemed “dangerous” by the National Weather Service. And without air conditioners or fans, many residents felt the heat.
Medical vans and state-chartered buses were waiting outside the city’s convention center on Sunday to take evacuees to state-run shelters. The city began assisting with evacuations on Friday, and by Saturday the vast majority of the nearly 600 people who had been taken out of the city were residents of the apartment complexes deemed unfit.
The evacuation program began after desperate pleas from residents and their families to officials to address deteriorating conditions in the apartment complexes for elderly residents.
“It was extremely disappointing to see how these private and private and privately operated facilities are enabling these kinds of conditions,” said David Morris, who is part of Resilient Nola, a city agency, and helped run the evacuations.
It was unclear why the city had not coordinated evacuation trips until several days after all of the city’s power was cut off by the storm. Mr Morris acknowledged that residents’ warnings about the poor condition of some apartments had caused the city to “pump on the gas” to start the program, but said it was important for the city to update the timeline for the recovery of the property. knew the power supply before deciding to move people away from the city.
“Evacuation is extremely taxing, extremely stressful from a physiological standpoint, especially for more vulnerable communities,” he said.
Once the evacuation buses started running, a range of residents found it helpful.
Johnnica Palmore waited Sunday morning in a lobby of the convention center with her two children, ages 11 and 2, for a bus bound for a shelter with electricity. She had spent the first days after the storm in the nursing home, where she works as a nursing assistant. But when she finally returned to her family’s home after the facility’s generator stopped working, she found that the roof of her daughter’s room had collapsed.
“Hopefully it’s safe where we’re going,” said Ms. Palmore, 36, who said she was afraid to get on a bus to a shelter far away, even though it seemed her only option.
A city spokesman said the state will not tell the city which shelters residents will be taken to until they board a bus, meaning those fleeing will have to decide to leave without knowing their destination.
Another hall of the convention center was converted into a 250-bed medical facility for people with health problems without power, such as those requiring oxygen or insulin. Sunday morning there were 17 patients at the shelter and officials said 11 more were on their way. Some had come out of their homes and others were transferred from hospitals already overrun with Covid-19 patients.
On Sunday, Mr. Gentry, who had been rescued from his eighth-floor apartment, said he felt much better waiting in line for lunch in Shreveport where the bus had taken him. “I knew I had to get out of there,” he said of the days he spent in his unit.
The deaths and reports of poor conditions in the Catholic-run buildings surprised many in New Orleans, where Catholicism is both the dominant religion and embedded in the city’s culture. It is the setting for holidays such as Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day, a much-celebrated holiday in March.
Generations of low-income seniors have been cared for by the homes of the Catholic Church, and the number of those apartments grew to nearly 1,100 citywide after Hurricane Katrina displaced many residents in 2005.