Louisiana officials confirm 7 deaths of nursing home residents who were evacuated to hurricane shelter
By Rebekah Riess, Keith Allen and Dave Alsup, CNN
(CNN) -- Louisiana health officials said Saturday they had confirmed seven deaths of nursing home residents evacuated to a temporary shelter in the town of Independence ahead of Hurricane Ida.
Five of those deaths have been classified as storm-related, the state's health department said in a news release.
The temporary shelter, a warehouse in Independence, was overwhelmed after receiving hundreds of residents from seven nursing homes on August 27 ahead of Hurricane Ida, officials said, as power and sanitary conditions were failing.
"Electricity went out more than once, and when that happens then the oxygen concentrators stop working. So that's a problem in itself. I spoke with the governor and we got oxygen tanks moved in here," Independence Police Chief Frank Edwards told CNN affiliate WVUE.
Also Saturday, Louisiana State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter ordered the immediate closure of the seven nursing facilities that evacuated to the Independence warehouse pending further regulatory action.
Following Ida's landfall on August 29, the state's health department said it heard reports about "deteriorating conditions" in the facility. Inspectors arriving four days after the residents arrived were expelled and kept from doing a full assessment, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.
Health officials said Saturday that health department team members were also "subject to intimidation by the owner of the seven nursing facilities."
The state's health department moved each person out of the building by Thursday evening, according to Kanter, the state health officer. Gov. John Bel Edwards said a total of 843 residents were moved from the location by Thursday.
State Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican, on Friday announced that the state's justice department is launching a full investigation into the matter.
Sheriff's office disputes AG characterization of events
In a news release, Landry drew attention to the fact that the Independence Police Chief Frank Edwards, and the sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish, Daniel Edwards, are brothers of the governor, who is a Democrat -- and that both made statements that they did not intend to investigate the deaths, according to Landry.
Independence Chief Edwards told CNN his department was too small and didn't have enough resources to investigate and has been overwhelmed with recovery efforts since the hurricane.
In an interview with WVUE, the chief had initially said he had no plans to investigate, but later in the interview left open the possibility.
When asked to respond to the attorney general's claims, the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's office said in a statement to CNN that the case was "not connected to the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office. It is under the purview of the Independence Police Department under Chief Frank Edwards."
Landry also expressed concern Friday that his Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and the Unified Command Group were not informed of the potential patient abuse or neglect until news of the deaths was made public.
"Our goal will be to determine who decided to move these patients to this apparently unsafe and potentially inappropriate facility," the attorney general said in a statement.
"We wish to determine who authorized that these patients be moved to that facility, who oversaw the movement, who later turned away career staff members of the Louisiana Department of Health when they attempted to look into this situation. And why did the Police Chief and the Sheriff state an investigation was not needed," Landry added. "How exactly did these deaths occur?"
In an updated statement Friday evening, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office Chief of Operations, James "Jimmy" Travis, told CNN, "Sheriff Edwards, contrary to Jeff Landry's false public statement, has never said that this matter should not be investigated."
Travis said before the Attorney General's Office was even involved in the incident at the warehouse facility, the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff personally asked the Coroner's office to consider performing autopsies on all of the deceased.
"Additionally, Sheriff Edwards has publicly stated this matter is very serious and the conditions deteriorated to the point where a full blown investigation is needed to see who all is responsible for what happened to those vulnerable patients that were evacuated to Independence," Travis said.
According to Travis, Sheriff Edwards asked him to contact the US Department of Health and Human Services to report the incident and request an investigation.
"Our office, as always, is willing to help in any way that we can," Travis said, adding that the Attorney General's Office and Louisiana State Police are leading the investigation of the incident.
4 were initially reported dead
The facility, described as a warehouse by state health department spokesperson Kevin Litten, is called Waterbury Companies Inc. CNN has reached out to Waterbury Companies for comment but has not heard back.
A review of business licenses by CNN has found that Baton Rouge, Louisiana, resident Bob Dean Jr. is listed as an executive with all seven nursing facilities, in addition to the warehouse.
CNN has reached out to Dean Jr. but has not received a response.
When questioned about the warehouse by WVUE, Dean said that, "we only had five deaths within the six days and normally with 850 people, you'll have a couple a day, so we did really good with taking care of people."
Of the four deaths initially reported, a coroner classified three as storm-related, the state Health Department said. Those were a 59-year-old woman from Jefferson Parish, a 52-year-old man from Orleans Parish, and a 77-year-old man from Terrebonne Parish, Gov. Edwards said Thursday evening.
Fourteen of the residents who were removed had to be taken to hospitals for further treatment or evaluation, officer Kanter said.
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