For such an historic event, I can’t seem to find any books about Hurricane Katrina that detail the events in a straightforward way. Some get all science-y, describing the meteorological features of the storm itself, the engineering of the levees, and other things way over the head of a dumb bunny like myself. Many (many) more get all sociopolitical-y, describing in long-winded detail the economic gulf between class and race in New Orleans, and the government’s response (or lack thereof) in the aftermath of the disaster. Very few give a general narrative, or overview of exactly what happened to the city over those few days in August 2005. The human moments and survival, or non-survival, stories that make for the most gripping reading are sprinkled through these books, but never take center stage.
Five Days At Memorial has all the elements I’m looking for, but focused in on a single location. It’s the story of Hurricane Katrina told through its impact on one building and its occupants — Memorial Medical Center in downtown New Orleans. Within hours of the storm’s landfall, the building had no power, no plumbing, and no ground access to anywhere due to the massive floods that turned streets into rivers.
We are a wired society, folks, no two ways about it. Lose electrical power for a few hours, and everyone goes into Little House on the Prairie mode, lighting candles and playing board games and having a fine old time. Lose it for more than a day, and it’s Road Warrior — society shits it collective pants in a shuddering seizure, grinding to a halt as people loot, rape and riot. Power loss is particularly catastrophic in a hospital. Respirators, monitors, climate control, and almost every piece of life-preserving equipment all plug into an outlet. Which is why hospitals always have back-up generators. Now why a city that’s below sea level and has suffered catastrophic floods in the past would choose to place a major hospital’s emergency generators in the basement is something of a head-scratcher. Generators under several feet of water do not operate at peak efficiency. In fact, they do not operate at all.
So Memorial became a hot, humid prison awash in human sewage, and forced the hardy souls who were stuck there to wait for days in hope of rescue. Helicopters and boats were limited in number and capacity, needed by thousands all over the city, and poorly coordinated to begin with. Not only did Memorial have to contend with harrowing physical circumstances, some of their none-too-spry patients left them with ethical dilemmas as well. Who gets priority rescue — those in the worst shape and closest to death, or those with a better chance for a longer life? What do you do with hospice patients who would be gone in a matter of days, hurricane or not, and now have no respirators or pain-killers to ease their way out? Do you force them to linger painfully, or put them out of their misery? If the latter, at what point in the ordeal is it acceptable, and which ones? Who decides? And who actually does the deed?
The Memorial staff had to answer all of these questions, act upon their decisions under extreme duress, and live with the consequences. Fink does a great job at telling their stories without editorializing or moralizing, and makes me grateful for my fully-functional, above-sea-level electrical grid.
(Whatever happened to “fink” as an insult, anyway? You don’t hear it much anymore.) Continue reading