DICKINSON, Texas – It started with bubbling toilets.
Then the water bled through the doors.
By the time Trudy Lampson arrived to La Vita Bella assisted-living home, the water was up to her ankles. Within 30 minutes, it rose to her waist. Lampson, the owner of the facility, had never seen water rise so rapidly.
“Nobody expected it in Dickinson,” Lampson said. “No warning it was going to happen.”
She ordered her overnight staff to gather all 15 residents in the facility in a community room near the front door. Lampson and her assistant exhaustively called 911 and surrounding rescue agencies, even state officials, when the water began to fill the room. The clock ticked from 2 a.m. to 3, then to 4, 5 and 6.
Lampson, 71, snapped a photo on her iPhone of the residents sitting in floodwaters. She texted the picture to her daughter in Florida, asking her to do anything to get word out that they were in dire need of help.
Lampson’s son-in-law posted the now-viral photo on Twitter: “La vita Bella nursing home in Dickinson Texas is underwater with nursing home patients”.
“Need help asap emergency services please RETWEET,” he wrote in a follow-up tweet.
It was one of the first photos that showed the devastation of Harvey.
Lampson didn’t expect the photo to create the online stir that it has. “When I took the picture, we were desperate. I wasn’t sure if it would do any good," she said. "I wanted to show, ‘Here’s where we are five hours into it, with no big trucks or boats around or anything.’”
Dozens of people commented online and have since left one-star reviews for the facility they viewed committed gross negligence against residents who couldn’t care for themselves.
“Shame on the owners and administration including their staff for not evacuating their residents knowing days before the arrival of a large hurricane,” wrote user ACTION EMS on Google.
“This is appalling! There are absolutely no excuses. They had ample time to move the elderly from the home. The State needs to pursue criminal charges against the low-life owners!” wrote Jonathan W. in a review.
“Absolutely disgusting you didn’t evacuate the elderly before the hurricane. I hope you’re shut down!” wrote Cindy Ray.
Susan Bobrick, whose sister lives at the facility, said people shouldn’t be so fast judge.
“One photo doesn’t tell everything about the people or the facility,” Bobrick said. “All these people say, ‘Why didn’t you evacuate? Why didn’t you do this?’ Everyone thought it was going to be rain. … Nobody imagined this.”
Lampson has owned La Vita Bella for 16 years. She worked as a licensed vocational nurse at two hospitals in east Houston when one day she drove past an assisted-living home and thought, “I can do that.” She bought La Vita Bella, which at the time had three residents. Her approach is to make the facility feel like the residents are in their own home.
“I want to create a place that my mom would want to live in,” Lampson said.
In fact, Lampson’s mom lived at La Vita Bella until her passing in January.
Lampson has a 111-page disaster plan booklet, signed off by Dickinson’s fire marshal office, that details plans for events ranging from hurricanes, burglaries, even a pandemic flu. She hadn’t prepared for a major flash flooding event like Harvey, which sent roughly 50 inches of rain over the Dickinson area in four days, according to unofficial numbers with the National Weather Center. (The NWS is still gathering official data from the hurricane.)
When she revises her disaster plan for next year, she’ll include a plan for flash flooding.
As for why she didn’t evacuate when she had the chance, Lampson said Dickinson was dry for much of Saturday, including the four hours she spent at the facility that afternoon. Meanwhile, her planned evacuation sites, including an assisted-living facility in Conroe and a hotel in Alvin, saw heavy rain.
“The roads were not passable (there) and it looked like we were dodging it,” Lampson said.
Even Bobrick, who lives in Clear Lake, didn’t think she needed to evacuate her sister.
“It’s easy to say if I knew, I could have gotten her the day before and brought her up with me,” she said, “but nobody expected that.”
As the sun set, Harvey pulled tropical moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and sent one rainband after another, filling Dickinson Bayou and flooding the town that hadn’t seen water so high since Tropical Storm Claudette nearly 30 years ago.
Finally around 11 a.m., nine hours after the toilets began bubbling, a man whose mother lives in the facility arrived with a boat, followed by two large military trucks. All 15 residents were rescued and uninjured, but a bit shaken. They’re currently spread across various nursing homes and assisted-living facilities near Dickinson as Lampson works to get hers back up and running.
She said all of the 15 residents plan to return. She hopes to reopen in three or four months, just before one of the residents celebrates her 100th birthday.
“We’re going to have a big party,” Lampson said.
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