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Five Days at Memorial: A docudrama of life and death at a hospital during Hurricane Katrina

On August 29, 2005, as Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane, headed for New Orleans, patients, medical staff and residents from the neighborhood took refuge inside Memorial Hospital to wait out the storm. As the hurricane hit the city, the doctors and staff at Memorial scrambled to take care of patients and those seeking refuge. Then there were sighs of relief as the storm passed with minimum damage to the hospital. But the terror of the next four days was just about to begin as the levees broke and the whole city became flooded.

As the article on Hurricane Katrina in the series American Crime shows, the horrific human suffering and death in the wake of the storm was a crime of this system of capitalism-imperialism. There was no help for thousands of desperate people stuck on roofs of houses, with nothing to eat or drink in 100-degree heat. Bodies of poor and Black people were left abandoned for days in the water and the rubble, mangled and decomposing. Police and National Guard declared people searching for food to be “looters” and shot at them. Prisoners were left locked in their cells as the guards fled. Over 25,000 people were herded like animals into the Superdome and Convention Center, subjected to inhumane, degrading conditions and brutal treatment. What happened at Memorial Hospital was part of all this.

As the floods came and took over the bottom floor of Memorial, doctors were faced with impossible decisions on how to treat patients, mostly Black and poor, in a hospital without electricity, with no plan or the ability to evacuate them, and a government that stood by doing nothing and forcing people to fend for themselves.

We’ve seen the horrors, terror and panic that the people of New Orleans overall faced in the aftermath of Katrina, resulting in the deaths of over 1,800 people, in the documentary films When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts and Trouble the Water. The new eight-part docudrama series Five Days at Memorial, now streaming on Apple TV+, is a story of the deaths of 45 patients at Memorial Hospital in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It is written and directed by John Ridley (an Oscar winner for his screenplay of the film 12 Years a Slave). So far, five of the weekly episodes have been released. The series is taken from a book by Dr. Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.

I found Five Days at Memorial to be very hard to watch. Doctors with no sleep in a sweltering hot hospital, without electricity, and with food and water running out, are forced to make difficult ethical decisions. With no help coming, do they let their patients die a painful death… or do they euthanize those who will be unable to leave the hospital and who will die before any help arrives?

Doctors who were at Memorial were interviewed after the fact, and one of them was asked, “Did you kill these patients?” These are doctors who believed that they were there to save lives, not take them. It was this system of capitalism-imperialism with its systemic racism that was responsible for the deaths of these 45 patients—a system that did not and would not do anything to get these patients, Black and poor, out of Memorial. The American Crime article mentioned above gives a historical setting for what happened in New Orleans with Katrina:

In the context of an enormous natural disaster, which the system had refused to prepare for, a combination of a long history of racism built into every level of economic, political, and social aspects of society; and conscious policy on the part of federal, state, and local governments—led to what amounted to ethnic cleansing and crimes against the poor. This connected up to a whole legacy of slavery and the oppression of Black people—going back to when New Orleans was a major center for the selling of slaves, and carried out by a system that has always treated Black people as exploitable, expendable, and undesirable.

As I am watching Five Days at Memorial, I keep thinking to myself what then-U.S. President George W. Bush said to Michael Brown, the head of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), about what they were doing after Katrina hit: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” The responsibility for the lives lost at Memorial Hospital—and in New Orleans as a whole—after Katrina lie at the feet of both Bush and Brown, and the system they represented. There is a scene in Five Days at Memorial in which a nurse stands on the roof of the hospital. She is trying to flag down a helicopter for help—and she sees the helicopter turn away because Air Force One jet, with Bush on board, is passing over the city. She looks up, angrily, at the presidential plane and gives Bush her middle finger.

Five Days at Memorial is a must see. Check it out.

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