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Over a dozen nursing homes could evacuate to facilities that failed state inspections

Since 2006, hurricane evacuation plans for Ferncrest Manor Living Center in New Orleans have called for residents to be taken to a Tangipahoa Parish campground. That arrangement ended in June when state health officials determined the campground was an unsuitable evacuation site for nursing home residents. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Since 2006, hurricane evacuation plans for Ferncrest Manor Living Center in New Orleans have called for residents to be taken to a Tangipahoa Parish campground. That arrangement ended in June when state health officials determined the campground was an unsuitable evacuation site for nursing home residents. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.

Ahead of hurricane season this year, Ferncrest Manor Living Center in New Orleans submitted a summary of its evacuation plan to the Louisiana Department of Health – just like the 93 other nursing homes in Louisiana’s most storm-prone parishes.

Ferncrest Manor’s plan garnered special attention from state health officials. The nursing home listed a campground with rustic cabins and recreational vehicle park in Tangipahoa Parish as a possible evacuation location for its medically-fragile residents.

State health officials and the fire marshal’s office identified significant problems with the site – Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Robert – during an inspection earlier this summer.

They reported standing water in building entrances and a hole in the roof of the facility. They saw mice and feces on the grounds. Officials concluded nursing home residents wouldn’t be able to navigate the cracked, muddy sidewalks or handle the lack of outdoor lighting either.

In addition to those deficiencies, Ferncrest Manor wanted to bring too many residents to the site. At the beginning of hurricane season, the population of the nursing home was 114, and the capacity of Jellystone Park was 99. It didn’t have adequate showers or sinks for that many people, according to a letter sent June 20 to Ferncrest’s administrator Jesse Shaffer.

“The Department recommends that this unlicensed evacuation site NOT be utilized at this time,” Tasheka Dukes, director of the Louisiana Department of Health’s health standards section, wrote to Ferncrest Manor’s leadership.

Ferncrest Manor did not respond to request for comment about its evacuation plan, but the staff at Jellystone Park campsite said the nursing home canceled its evacuation contract with the campsite about six weeks ago, shortly after it would have received the health department’s letter.

Doreen Foret, who helps supervise the campsite, said the nursing home had contracted with Jellystone Park since 2006 to provide evacuation space, though the home never actually sent residents to the Robert campground for a hurricane or any other emergency in all those years.

In all, state officials recommended 16 nursing homes from hurricane-prone areas reconsider evacuation sites they planned to use, according to documents provided to the Illuminator in response to a public records request.

75% of unlicensed sites declared unfit

In May and June, state officials inspected all 12 unlicensed facilities the nursing homes proposed for shelters. Nine were deemed inadequate.

Only three unlicensed sites, which collectively serve five homes, passed inspection, according to letters the health department sent to nursing home owners and administrators in late June.

Under current law, Louisiana cannot force nursing homes to change these evacuation locations before the end of this hurricane season in November, Stephen Russo, a health department attorney, said in an interview last week.

Still, health inspectors have put the nursing home owners on notice that they will be watching them closely if they choose to use any of the questionable locations. The owners could put their nursing home licenses at risk if they move to one of those locations and something goes wrong, Russo said.

Most south Louisiana nursing homes evacuate residents to licensed health care facilities – such as other nursing homes and rehabilitation centers – in safer parts of the state for hurricanes. They are also allowed to set up unlicensed emergency shelters at sites that include schools, churches and conference centers.

Unlicensed facilities are under more scrutiny following the disastrous evacuation of seven nursing homes ahead of Hurricane Ida. Last August, Bob Dean moved nearly 850 people from his southeastern Louisiana facilities to a former pesticide warehouse he owns in Tangipahoa Parish.

The residents ended up on air mattresses on the ground without enough clothing, toilets or food. Hundreds eventually had to be rescued and 15 died within a month. At least five of those deaths were attributed to the evacuation.

The health department eventually shut down Dean’s homes and pulled his lucrative nursing home licenses in response to the scandal. Several evacuees and their families have sued Dean, who is fighting both the lawsuits and government sanctions.

The Louisiana Legislature reacted to the Dean debacle with a new law to strengthen nursing home emergency plans and evacuation standards, but it won’t be fully in place until May 2023. Until then, the state doesn’t have many tools to push back against nursing homes and their choice of evacuation sites, even if health officials have concerns, Russo said.

Some problems health officials identified at unlicensed shelters are similar to those found at Dean’s warehouse. Several nursing homes were told their unlicensed sites weren’t big enough to hold the number of residents they planned to house. Many also lack enough showers, sinks and kitchen capacity.

Dean’s warehouse was also overcrowded, exacerbating the facility’s shortage of toilets and showers. His staff struggled to feed the residents in the days after the hurricane because there wasn’t a working kitchen on the site.

Nursing homes that wanted to adjust their evacuation plans in the aftermath of Dean’s evacuation problems had plenty of time to do so. The homes’ owners weren’t required to submit their evacuation plans for review until March, six months after Ida and Dean’s warehouse debacle.

Archdiocese asked to find alternate evacuation site

Documents reviewed by the Illuminator show five nursing homes listed Creekside Junior High School in Pearl River as an evacuation location. The health department expressed several worries about the site, including that the building might not be able to withstand a strong hurricane.

“Gym of the junior high school is to be used for community sheltering, for several facilities, only for Pre-Storm and Post-Storm; the gym is not structurally sound to safely shelter nursing home residents during a hurricane/storm,” Dukes, from the health department, wrote to the five nursing home owners.

Officials also wondered how Creekside Junior High would function as a shelter for nursing home patients when students would also be expected to use the school for class.

Health officials have also asked the Archdiocese of New Orleans to find an alternative to the evacuation center it built in Bunkie for its nursing homes. The site, run by the Notre Dame Health System, doesn’t have enough hand washing stations or showers to meet residents’ needs, officials said, and the archdiocese hasn’t identified a place nearby to house nursing home staff who would have to work at the evacuation center.

The archdiocese planned to put residents from three nursing homes – Chateau De Notre Dame and Our Lady of Wisdom Health Care Center in New Orleans and Wynhoven Health Care Center in Marrero – at that location, according to records from the health department.

The archdiocese said the Notre Dame Health System is still negotiating with the state health department over its evacuation plans.

“We are working towards resolutions to all of the concerns and confident issues are being addressed sufficiently,” archdiocese spokesperson Sarah McDonald said in a written statement Monday.

“The leadership and staff of Notre Dame Health System want to assure families and residents that in the event of an evacuation all appropriate health and safety measures will be in place for the proper care of residents,” she said.