There is something about Hurricane Katrina and it’s aftermath that continues to fascinate me, even nine years on from the disaster. The storm and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans exposed a part of America that is often hidden, ignored and overlooked. The image America projects of itself at home and abroad as the land of the free and a first world superpower was shown up as a brilliant city and it’s people were reduced to the third world status. The failure and breakdown of governments and their institutions before, during and after the hurricane was shocking in its totality. Coupled with a hysteria fed on and spread by the media and Katrina was truly a disaster like no other. And the political, economic and social fallout is still being felt.
The truth of what happened in New Orleans during and after the storm is as murky as the flood water that inundated the city. Rumours of looting and violence spread like a wildfire and while some incidents did occur many reports were exaggerated and unverified yet remain part of Katrina’s folklore. One of the most harrowing incidents reported after the storm was the alleged mercy killings of patients at nursing homes and hospitals. Sheri Fink has spent six years investigating what happened at one at one of these hospitals, Memorial Medical Center.
The book is told in two parts. Fink meticulously reconstructs what happened at Memorial Hospital during and after the storm. As the flood waters rose following the hurricane, doctors and nurses trapped in Memorial Hospital had to make painful decisions over which patients were evacuated first and which had to wait. With rumours and counter rumours about rescue swirling around confusion was rife. In the aftermath of the chaos several hospital staff were accused of euthanizing patients. Fink then follows the legal proceedings that took two years to go to a grand jury.
The story is told from all sides. The narrative is gripping, switching from survival drama to legal investigation with ease. Fink skillfully puts each viewpoint forward. She is both sympathetic and critical of both the accused doctors and nurses as well as the investigators and prosecutors. Fink also examines the role the hospital played and how its structure compounded other institutional failures. She debates the issue of mercy killing and euthanasia and examines the role the media played both during the storm and over the next two years.
Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans became (and still is) a microcosm of institutional and government failure. What occurred at Memorial hospital is another sad chapter but an important one. In a world where hearsay and rumour is reported instantaneously as fact, where big business has taken over the management of healthcare truth, justice and basic humanity not only gets buried it can get completely washed away.