'I told them I had been kidnapped': Nursing home evacuees call 911 about lack of care, food

Melissa Brown
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Paramedics evacuate nursing home residents Sept. 2 from a mass shelter in Independence, where they had been taken in advance of Hurricane Ida.

It was just after midnight on Aug. 28 when Debbie Strickland called 911 to report her own kidnapping. 

Strickland lay on a hospital cot in the middle of a cavernous Tangipahoa Parish warehouse, wearing nothing but a hospital gown and diaper. Nothing protected her from the bare cot mattress, though a thin sheet was draped over her. Strickland had asked for help to the bathroom for hours, to no avail. 

She wasn't sure what else to do other than dial 911 from her cot. 

More:Louisiana revokes nursing home licenses after 7 died in 'inhumane' warehouse conditions

"They lied and said we were going to a real nursing home," Strickland said Thursday. "We ended up in a warehouse instead."

The 66-year-old was one of hundreds of nursing home residents evacuated ahead of Hurricane Ida to an Independence, Louisiana, warehouse now at the center of a statewide investigation. A log of 911 calls obtained by the USA Today Network reveals chaotic conditions reported even before Ida hit, with at least 30 calls made to local officials from the facility about building conditions, food supply and myriad medical complaints. 

"I told them I had been kidnapped to the warehouse, and they refused to let me off the cot," Strickland said of her late-night 911 call.

"They refused to help me," Strickland said of staff inside the warehouse. She estimated there were three to four staff members per nursing home on hand to help hundreds of patients. "They were barely feeding me. They put a diaper on me and they just changed me whenever, they didn’t care how I used the bathroom. They would just come to the cot when they were in the mood to change me."

Strickland said the 911 operator promised to send someone out to the location at 129 Calhoun Street, but she isn't sure if someone came. She later heard someone at the warehouse door, with staff telling them to leave, but she wasn't able to see the door from her cot. 

As Ida bore down on the Louisiana coast and headed north, 911 calls continued to roll in from Calhoun Street. On Aug. 29, a man who identified himself as a stroke patient said he was being treated "poorly," as he lay on a mattress on the concrete floor. On Aug. 30, multiple "breathing stopped" calls were made, and a dialysis patient called to report he was in a lot of pain because he'd missed treatments. 

Staff leaves a facilty where people were evacuated from a mass shelter in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Independence, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

On Aug. 31, someone called asking for help for a brittle diabetic patient who had not eaten due to the facility "not having more supplies." Someone called shortly after 3 p.m. about a "possible death already reported several times," according to the 911 dispatch notes. 

More:Nursing home evacuees called 911 from fetid warehouse where 4 died, but EMTs turned away

Cots in Strickland's area were crowded so closely together her neighbor couldn't turn in his bed without accidentally hitting her. Patients were confused and scared, Strickland said. There were too few staff to care for the patient load, and the staff she encountered were dismissive. 

"People said they weren’t being fed well, and they didn’t know when they were going to get changed," Strickland said, which was causing a lot of pain and discomfort as people languished in their own waste. "They were being physically abused."

Strickland purchased a $900 wheelchair several years ago that she used to get around, and said she was told it would go with her to the evacuation site. But she hasn't seen it since she left the nursing home and was cot-bound for the entirety of her stay in the warehouse. Her best friend at the Maison De'Ville nursing home in Harvey, who previously had a leg amputated, was refused help with her wheelchair, Strickland said. 

"She had to get in and out of her wheelchair as best she could with one leg," said Strickland, whose friend was still in the warehouse on Wednesday when she was evacuated via ambulance. 

"I don’t know where she ended up."

'Completely unacceptable and disturbing'

It is unclear exactly how many residents evacuated from the warehouse required hospital care following their days-long ordeal. Strickland was taken to a Marksville, Louisiana, nursing home, where staff helped her find clean new clothes.

Many family members of residents learned of their loved ones' location from media coverage last week, as news began to break of the squalid conditions and ongoing evacuations from the facility. It appears no entity has been able to conduct a widespread identification and notification system, with families attempting a patchwork game of telephone between hospitals, nursing home staff  and other officials as they try to track down their family members. 

Kacey Lirette of Houma first discovered her 90-year-old grandmother had been transferred from the South Lafourche Nursing Home to the Independence warehouse as the news broke about evacuation. Lirette said the family knew the home was being evacuated, but they trusted the nursing home plan presented to them when they first moved the matriarch in just two months ago. 

More:Seven nursing homes closed after State finds deplorable conditions in evacuation center

After some panicked phone calls, a nurse was able to tell the family she had been taken to a hospital, but not the hospital's name. So Lirette, fighting spotty cell service due to Ida damage, began calling every local hospital she could find. 

Finally, she found her grandmother. 

"When I originally spoke to one of the nurses, she let me know she was sent for being dehydrated," Lirette said. "Once we were able to get to the hospital, we found out she had also fallen. The clothes that had been put on her to go to the hospital were not her clothes. Her shirt was bloody. Her pants were soiled. Her shoes, usually pristine white, were full of urine, fecal matter and dirt. She was not in very good condition."

She is still hospitalized, Lirette said, with a serious bladder infection due to either dehydration, sitting in waste, or both. 

"It’s completely unacceptable and disturbing that she and the other elderly people there had to go through that," Lirette said. "It’s very, very upsetting and frustrating. At the end of the day, somebody needs to be held accountable for this. My grandma did not deserve to go through everything she went through at 90 years old."

Licenses revoked

The Louisiana Department of Health this week revoked the nursing homes' licenses amid the ongoing investigation. The department said the homes, all owned by Baton Rouge businessman Bob Dean, had approval for their evacuation plans, but the plans were not executed as promised.

LDH attorney Stephen Russo said agency investigators have encountered resistance from nursing home administrators and were "intimidated" by Dean through a phone conversation. Russo said Dean ordered LDH personnel off the property when conducting wellness checks. 

“All of these nursing facilities clearly failed to execute their emergency preparedness plans to provide essential care and services to their residents,” LDH Secretary Dr. Courtney N. Phillips said in a statement. “When issues arose post-storm, we now know the level of care for these residents plummeted; an individual representing himself as the nursing home owner failed to communicate the situation; and then upon hearing reports from others that conditions at the facility had deteriorated our LDH surveyor was expelled from the property and LDH employees were subject to intimidation. Ultimately, lives were lost — these were grandparents, neighbors and friends, and we know families are hurting. We as a Department are taking formal regulatory action.”

When asked for a copy of the evacuation plan approved by LDH, a department spokesperson asked the USA Today Network to file a formal records request. The department has not yet responded to a question regarding the total number of warehouse residents who required hospitalization. 

Strickland briefly broke down talking about her new nursing home, Valley View Health Care, on Wednesday as the exhaustion and emotional drain of the past two weeks took its toll. 

"I’m feeling drained. I’m happy, at the same time, that Valley View rescued me," she said. "I think it was Jesus who sent me someone to rescue me."

Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Melissa Brown at 334-240-0132 or mabrown@gannett.com.