Nursing Home Evacuation: Better After Katrina?

Some of the most shocking deaths during Hurricane Katrina occurred in nursing homes, where elderly and disabled residents were trapped or abandoned. Now, Louisiana has new state rules designed to make sure residents in senior housing are evacuated before it's too late.

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Three years ago some of the most shocking scenes from Hurricane Katrina came from nursing homes. In Louisiana, about 100 residents died when they were trapped or abandoned in retirement centers. Now there are new state rules to make sure residents of senior housing get evacuated. With Tropical Storm Gustav approaching, NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports those rules are getting their first real test.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: Dennis Adams runs Christopher Homes in New Orleans. He's got 1,200 apartments for poor and often frail elderly people. He remembers when three years ago, with Hurricane Katrina bearing down, he told his residents they'd have to evacuate.

Mr. DENNIS ADAMS (Christopher Homes): And they immediately came back and said you can't make me leave. We live here; this is our apartments; we will stay.

SHAPIRO: As the floodwaters rose, National Guardsmen evacuated the many residents who did stay. But three elderly residents died. Adams says it looks like they'd been hiding from the soldiers who came to rescue them. Since then anyone who wants to live at Christopher Homes has to sign a contract and agree they'll leave when a storm, like Gustav, approaches and the state declares a mandatory evacuation.

Ms. LOUISE EWING (Retirement Home Resident): Actually I'm packing right now 'cause it takes a while to get all this together.

SHAPIRO: Louise Ewing(ph) is ready to go. She lives at Lambeth House, a retirement community in uptown New Orleans. Everyone there calls her Ms. Lou. She learned from her experience during Katrina what to pack. So, this weekend she's made sure she's got her cell phone ready, along with all her prescription medications, her ID and insurance cards, checkbook, jewelry and her gun.

Ms. EWING: I've never used it. It is well-hidden.

SHAPIRO: Well, I'm glad you don't have to use it.

Ms. EWING: I am too 'cause my aim might not be very good.

SHAPIRO: Ewing turns 86 next week, and she's not happy that she'll probably miss her birthday celebration at a favorite New Orleans restaurant. But she says she's not frightened or upset about the approaching storm.

Ms. EWING: No, not terribly upset, mostly mad at nature 'cause this is a lot of effort to get up and get out of here.

SHAPIRO: During Katrina, rented buses often didn't show up when they were needed. Now, the city and state have a new transportation plan and extra buses to prevent that from happening again. Still, administrators at Lambeth House bought two buses just to be sure.

Scott Crabtree runs Lambeth House. He served on a state commission that came up with new evacuation rules.

Mr. SCOTT CRABTREE (Executive Director, Lambeth House): And let me tell you, this is the first test post-Katrina. And you could not criticize anyone for overreacting or, you know, making some decisions that we'll second-guess later on because this is our first test.

SHAPIRO: But he does worry that the state, in trying to be safe, will call for a mandatory evacuation too soon. When that happens, all traffic gets directed out of the city. He's got staff who live outside New Orleans and they wouldn't be able to come in. So, he's got extra shifts working today and he's already called in ambulances to evacuate three residents who are so sick they can't leave on the buses.

There can be danger in leaving too. There have been cases of frail elderly people who died on hot buses while stuck in evacuation traffic. Still, Joan Bruckern(ph) spells out the case for extra caution in a new study in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. She looked at death certificates for the nearly 1,000 people who died in Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Ms. JOAN BRUCKERN (Wrote Study in Journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, Epidemiologist): And we found that approximately half of the victims were 75 and older.

SHAPIRO: Bruckern is an epidemiologist with the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She says in Katrina, most people died in their own homes - many because they were afraid to leave, but mostly because they had no way to leave. And that's what Louisiana, with extra preparation, is trying to avoid this time around.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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