About 3,400 people were in state- and parish-operated shelters Friday, five days after Hurricane Ida swept through Louisiana leaving more than a million people without power and thousands without a home to return to.
Nearly 1,000 of those people were in a mega-shelter in Alexandria. That shelter, run by the Louisiana Department of Health and the Louisiana Department of Family and Child Services, opened its doors last week. It normally holds 3,200 but because of COVID, it is limited to 1,200 people.
Just before Ida made landfall, the first 19 people arrived at the Alexandria shelter. More than 50 cames a few hours later. Then, hundreds. As of early afternoon Friday, the total number of guests was 930, according to Daniel Doyle, a DFCS shelter coordinator.
A fifth nursing home resident who had been transferred to a Tangipahoa Parish warehouse ahead of Hurricane Ida has died.
“We make sure that all the evacuees get the service that they need,” Doyle said. “A food vendor provides four meals a day to everyone who wants it: breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the midnight meal.
"What we do here is make sure that everyone has a place to stay and that they feel comfortable, as much as possible.”
The number of displaced Louisianans in shelters has been difficut to pin down in recent days, officials said, as some smaller shelters in harder hit areas have closed, people have moved to larger shelters and some have left shelters to return home, live with friends or family or seek temporary rentals elsewhere.
In addition, residents of 25 Louisiana parishes were approved for a federal program Friday that allows Hurricane Ida survivors to stay in a hotel for up to 30 days.
The program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is called transitional sheltering assistance.
It is separate from the 28 state- and parish-operated shelters, which housed 3,427 people on Friday morning, according to Catherine Heitman, communications director for the Department of Children and Family Services.
Residents at the Alexandria shelter said they're not sure when they might be able to apply for FEMA help or get back to their homes to assess the damage.
“Our place isn't there anymore,” said Anne McElroy, of Houma, who arrived at the shelter Monday.
With help from three National Guard soldiers, she and her husband were moving out of the shelter Friday.
“The staff was good,” she said. “They checked on me periodically because I have high blood pressure, we had food and stuff, but we needed to leave as soon as possible.” In the short-term, the couple will stay with friends from Bryan, Texas.
“I was in a nursing home in New Orleans, but then the Ida floods messed up our building, so they brought me here,” said Jamie Washington, while sitting in her wheelchair outside the shelter. The shelter could be a little cleaner a nd more efficient, she said. "But it is way better than where I was."
Washington was among dozens of nursing home residents brought to the shelter from facilities in poor condition, including a remote warehouse in Indpendence where about 800 nursing home residents were evacuated. On Thursday, after six days in unsanitary conditions, more than 700 of those residents were rescued and four died.
At the back of the Alexandria facility, lines of nursing home residents boarded buses throughout the day Friday, to be escorted to other nursing homes that were equipped to care for them. Washington’s turn might come early next week.
"My nursing home let us know that we might be able to come back there on Monday,” she said. “But now it's me that doesn’t want to get back there, actually.”
Outside the shelter, there was a mix of hope and uncertainty. John Knight, who ended up here from New Orleans, smoked a cigarette with his friend Robert Oster. They both worried about when they might be able to get back home.
For some, new friendships were forming. That was the case for D’Andre Windfield, a resident of Terrytown, who was giving an outdoor haircut to James Small, of Marrero. The two men didn't know each other before Hurricane Ida disrupted their lives.
The Alexandria shelter includes about 150 beds for patients transferred from medical facilities and nursing homes in south Louisiana.
Dr. Kevin McGann of Envision Physician Services, a physician-led medical group based in Nashville, is leading a medical team assigned to treat “medically fragile” people at the shelter.
He said the center began receiving patients in the health unit Saturday. Many were transported by ambulance from nursing home care in the southern Louisiana parishes; others were driven to the shelter by family members or arrived as evacuees on buses.
Some of those evacuees are not vaccinated, and the facility accommodates them. With less than it full house, social distancing is doable.
McGann said the facility is capable of handling people who need a variety of care, including people on ventilators. The facility has nurses, medical technicians and physicians with a variety of specialties. Envision and the state, which contracts with Envision, has collaborative agreements with local hospitals for patients who need ICU care.
McGann said the facility, on U.S. 71 south of Alexandria, was built by the state after Katrina. He said it is “hurricane certified” but handles patients and evacuees from other disasters, as well.
“It’s a pretty big operation,” he said. None of the physicians are local but all remain on site “until the job is done.” He said the state’s disaster team and the Department of Health decide when his team goes home.
“It takes a huge amount of dedication to help people who are put in a tough situation. Make as comfortable and easy as we can for patients, who have been through so much already. We work hard to bring back the human element in folks’ lives. Nature has given them a blow. We practice medicine and humanity. We are proud of what we do here.”
Staff writers Ken Stickney and Will Sentell contributed to this report.