When Larry Tyler gathered with other residents outside of the Flint-Goodridge Apartments for seniors in Central City on Friday, he saw something disturbing in a neighbor’s window: flies.
“I didn’t notice flies in the other units,” Tyler said. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right.”
It was the fifth day after Hurricane Ida made landfall. Power had been out in the building since the storm blew through, which meant no air conditioning and no lights. Tyler and other residents said they hadn’t seen the building’s manager for a week, though security guards and a maintenance man had been around.
Tyler told a security guard what he’d seen, and that led to a grisly discovery inside the apartment: the body of 74-year-old Reginald Logan, one of two residents found dead less than a week after the storm.
The scenario of senior citizens left to fend for themselves in apartment complexes without power played out across New Orleans during the hurricane and its aftermath. On Friday and Saturday, after several days without power, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration conducted emergency evacuations at 10 of the facilities, forcing at least two to close. Five deaths were discovered during the evacuations.
In the days since, city officials and building owners, including Flint-Goodridge owner HRI Properties and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which owns several of the independent-living apartment complexes, have traded accusations over who is to blame for the horrible conditions after the storm.
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In public statements, Cantrell and other city officials haven’t minced words when addressing the building owners.
“We are going to call it what it is. It was negligence, and it was not on the backs of the city of New Orleans,” Cantrell said Monday during a news conference. “What we found was unacceptable and accountability will be across the board.”
District C Councilmember Kristin Gisleson Palmer, who was on site for the evacuation of the Renaissance Place apartment building in Algiers on Friday, said building operators are hiding behind “loopholes” to avoid taking responsibility for caring for their residents.
“There’s the violation of human rights,” Palmer said.
Meanwhile, the building owners say that accountability lies with the city. They said they tried to contact city officials for help after the storm. And their buildings, while accommodating older residents, are for independent seniors, and aren’t set up like nursing homes or assisted-living facilities to provide medical care or daily living support.
HRI Properties, a well-known developer throughout New Orleans, noted in a statement Monday that the Flint-Goodridge complex “is not a care facility.” Residents, some of whom drive their own vehicles, are responsible for making their own evacuation decisions, the company said.
In a statement e-mailed by spokesperson Larry Lovell, the company’s management said it doesn’t provide food, water or medical care at the complex, “but we staffed the property with emergency staff, including security and maintenance” for the storm.
HRI said it had “reached out to the city and utilized the 311 system, but no evacuation location was identified or established by government officials until more than six days after Ida damaged the region.”
The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which manages seven of the cited buildings, said its affiliates had “repeatedly requested assistance and resources” in the days after the storm with no response, and argued that it couldn’t force residents to leave before the storm because there was not a mandatory evacuation.
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The city’s communications director, Beau Tidwell, said the administration was not aware of any requests that “were denied or delayed” concerning any of the apartment buildings.
City officials who have accused the building owners of negligence didn’t point to specific violations at the properties, though Cantrell said there may be a need to create new regulations for these types of buildings related to generator capacity or emergency personnel during storms and other crises.
On Monday, Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno, who oversaw the evacuations, laid out a timeline of contacts and attempted contacts with residents and the facilities.
She said that her team checked in with many senior residences before the storm, and then again on Monday, Aug. 30, after Ida had cleared the area. They worked to get those residences food, ice and water at the facilities’ request, she said.
But they had trouble reaching managers at some of the facilities. She said they decided either late Wednesday or Thursday to send city staffers out to check on residents’ situations. Those checks began on Friday, she said. When they arrived, power had been out for days, and conditions at some locations were so terrible that they immediately began clearing them out, she said.
“We were worried folks weren’t able to communicate. That was when we realized the situation were more critical than we had maybe heard about,” Avegno said.
On Saturday, six days after the storm hit, the city started offering bus rides to shelters across the state. Avegno and other officials said the timing of transportation assistance was not tied to the evacuations.
HRI has repeatedly claimed its staff provided food and water to residents in the storm’s immediate aftermath. Four residents of the building said that wasn’t true. Residents said that while maintenance and security were at the building, there was no building management on site for a full week in the days before and after the hurricane, starting on Friday, Aug. 27, much less any food and water provisions.
Resident Rena McCarter said that someone should have come to see if the people in the building were all right. She said Ida’s rain poured through the roof and left standing water on all four floors. She said part of the first-floor ceiling collapsed under the weight of the water.
“If they would have came the next day after and did a wellness check, maybe the two people that expired could have been saved,” McCarter said.
HRI said the building has limited generator capacity, intended for emergency lighting and alerts, and not to power apartments.
But Brenda Briggs, who is the sister of Logan, the man who died, said her brother had relied on assurances of generator power when moving in about five months ago. Logan used an oxygen tank to breathe, she said. Briggs and another sibling asked Logan if he wanted to evacuate with them, she said, but he preferred to stay in his home.
“He was satisfied with being there, because we understood they had a generator. I would have never left him behind,” Briggs said. “He died alone in the dark.”