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Probes Begin After Elderly New Orleans Residents Die In Harsh Conditions Post Ida

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Officials in New Orleans say they found the bodies of five elderly residents over the weekend who died in senior living apartments. They were left after Hurricane Ida without electricity, no air conditioning. Three of the people died in apartment buildings operated by the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. NPR's Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: New Orleans Public Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno says as days passed after Hurricane Ida hit without electricity being restored, she began to worry about conditions in all the senior living apartment buildings across the city. Beginning Thursday, Avegno says she sent teams to inspect more than 30 buildings and knock on every apartment door.

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JENNIFER AVEGNO: In some of these facilities, we found fairly stark conditions - no power, no elevators, no lights.

MANN: Also no air conditioning. Many residents didn't have phones, Avegno says, no way of calling for help.

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AVEGNO: Tragically, in some places, our staff discovered residents who had died and had not yet been discovered.

MANN: Avegno says it's not clear how long they'd been dead. She spoke at a press conference yesterday. City officials were asked why these inspections didn't happen sooner. Avegno and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell say they initially relied on misleading or incomplete information about residents' safety provided by building managers. Cantrell then pointed the finger at nonprofit groups that operate many of these apartment buildings, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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LATOYA CANTRELL: I think accountability needs to be where it is, and that's on these institutions, the dioceses, whomever, who is responsible for protecting the lives of the elderly, which they're paid to do.

MANN: City officials say in some cases, building managers and staff evacuated as Ida was approaching, leaving elderly residents behind to fend for themselves. Church officials didn't respond to NPR's request for comment, but they did issue a public statement denying wrongdoing. All residents were encouraged to evacuate, the statement said. Some residents chose to stay in their apartments. According to the archdiocese, church employees sought government help for residents, and no one responded. That statement didn't specify what kind of assistance they asked for. City officials have now closed numerous senior apartments and nursing homes around the city, transporting older and vulnerable residents to shelters in north Louisiana. Karen Hughes, who's 56 with serious medical issues, was sitting outside her apartment building on a sweltering day in her wheelchair, waiting for one of the evacuation buses, eager to go someplace safe.

KAREN HUGHES: It doesn't matter (laughter) as long as it's got lights, I can eat and water and gas and food I can - as long as I can survive.

MANN: This isn't the first incident after Hurricane Ida where elderly residents in Louisiana died after spending days in squalid conditions. Seven nursing home residents died after being evacuated to a shelter opened in a warehouse where officials say they had few toilets or other amenities. State Attorney General Jeff Landry has opened an investigation.

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JEFF LANDRY: And our goal will be to determine who decided to move these patients to this apparently unsafe and potentially inappropriate facility.

MANN: All these deaths are now being investigated, and New Orleans officials say they'll also push state legislation requiring senior apartments in Louisiana be better prepared for hurricanes in the future. Brian Mann, NPR News, New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDLESS DIVE'S "SEPT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.