Nursing homes returning slowly after Katrina

Published 12:11 am Monday, September 17, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Larry Stansberry is looking forward to Oct. 1. That’s when he thinks he will finally put Hurricane Katrina behind him.

Stansberry, chief executive officer of St. Margaret’s Nursing Home, expects to welcome some former residents to the new home in the 9th Ward that replaced one wiped out by the hurricane.

‘‘It’s been an incredibly hard two years coming back from the storm,’’ Stansberry said.

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That’s true for many nursing homes that operated in the path of the Aug. 29, 2005 storm.

Nursing-home beds in New Orleans decreased 42 percent from 2,343 to 1,355 after the storm, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. The number of nursing homes and elderly-care centers also declined 42 percent, from 19 to 11.

None of the four nursing homes in devastated St. Bernard Parish have reopened, and 10 in New Orleans remain closed. All nursing homes in Jefferson Parish, where damage was not as severe, have at least resumed some operations, said Joseph Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association.

‘‘Many of the homes only opened up a percentage of their beds to begin with,’’ Donchess said. ‘‘Maybe 25 percent at first. Now they’re up to 60 or 75 percent. A big problem is that they can’t find enough nursing staff on all levels to run their homes.’’

A not-guilty verdict for the couple that operated a St. Bernard nursing home where 35 people died after Katrina, and the decision not to charge the nuns who run Lafon Nursing Home, where 19 people died after the storm, will not have much impact on the decision to reopen nursing homes, Donchess said.

‘‘Those 14 facilities have to make economic decision not philosophical one,’’ Donchess said. ‘‘And besides, the rules have changed for nursing homes,’’ he said.

Under the new rules, the governor’s state-of-emergency declaration 72 hours before tropical storm-force winds hit Louisiana triggers a mandatory evacuation of nursing homes in the path of the storm. The idea is to move nursing home residents out before highways become jammed with evacuation of the general population.

The costs of returning are high, Stansberry said.

St. Margaret’s, operated as a non-profit institution, spent $14 million to buy and renovate a former hospital. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided about $8.5 million; the rest came from private donations. As completed, the home will have 104 beds and will open with 60 employees, compared to a staff of 100 before the storm.

By some estimates, nursing home residents accounted for almost 10 percent of the more than 1,400 deaths blamed on Katrina in Louisiana. As many as 55 of the deaths occurred during or immediately after evacuation.

Only 21 of the 57 nursing homes considered at risk during Katrina evacuated, authorities said. The rest chose to spare fragile residents a traumatic, possibly fatal trip.

Some of those who stayed suffered, too. At St. Rita’s Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, water reached the roof of the one-story building and 35 residents drowned. At the Lafon Nursing Home of the Holy Family in New Orleans, 19 people died in the heat wave that came after the storm.

St. Margaret’s evacuated before Katrina — going first to a shelter near Baton Rouge and then settling patients in nursing homes in north Louisiana. One patient died during the trip. Of the 95 people evacuated before the storm, 50 have since died.

‘‘Evacuations are very difficult for the frail and elderly,’’ Stansberry said. ‘‘The mortality rate in the people we served has doubled since the storm. It’s at least twice what we expected it to be. I think that’s directly attributable to the evacuation.’’

In St. Bernard Parish, none of the four nursing homes operating before Katrina have reopened. St. Rita’s has been gutted, but it’s unknown if it will ever reopen.

Owners Sal and Mabel Mangano were found not guilty of negligent homicide and cruelty to the infirm earlier this month. But the couple, in their 60s, face more than 35 civil suits that could drag on for years.

The Sisters of the Holy Family will not face criminal charges for the deaths at Lafon, but are facing at least 20 civil suits. But the order, an African-American religious order founded in 1842 by a free woman of African descent, is determined to reopen the home, said Evans Schmidt, the attorney representing them.

‘‘It is the intent of the Sisters of the Holy Family to overcome all obstacles in the way of reopening the Lafon facility including insurance issues; and to resume the ministry first begun by their foundress, Henriette Delille, in the 19th century,’’ Schmidt wrote in an e-mail. ‘‘The sisters have, throughout their history, served through adversity and intend to persevere in this instance as well.’’