The morning after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, folks at Memorial Medical Center rejoiced. The sun was shining. The facility still had power and supplies. The fact that there was no official flood evacuation protocol was mystifying but irrelevant, since the National Guard was on hand. Not to mention that their corporate parent, Tenet Health, was surely aware of the situation and ready to help. Rescue was imminent, especially once they dusted off the helipad. And then the levees broke, and 15 feet of water brought the 80-year-old hospital to its knees in a matter of hours.
Based on the book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial chronicles the hospital’s rapid descent from dependable, functioning medical center to a primitive hellscape without food, water, or electricity. The limited series’ framing device and central mystery concerns the discovery of 45 bodies in the hospital’s hallways and chapel, with interviews of doctors and nurses interspersed throughout each episode. How did they die? What happened in the five days between Katrina’s landfall and Memorial’s final evacuation?
There’s plenty of blame to pass around, and this being America, privatized healthcare is at the top of the list. As conditions rapidly deteriorate in New Orleans, the unconcerned suits at Tenet Health, safely ensconced in Dallas, unironically discuss “post-disaster P&L accounting” — a fancy way of admitting that the hurricane is good for business. Rather than deploy their considerable resources as a private entity, they pass responsibility to the National Guard. It seems like a sound enough decision, had the National Guard been the well-oiled machine one would expect in the face of disaster. Instead, it’s well-known that the Katrina response at all levels of government was disjointed, disorganized, and massively ill-equipped to handle the worst natural disaster in American history.
Inside Memorial, series creators, writers, and directors Carlton Cuse (Lost) and John Ridley (American Crime, 12 Years a Slave) narrow the building’s 2,000 occupants to focus on a constellation of doctors, nurses, and patients. Across these first three episodes, we spend the most time with two individuals: Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga), a head and neck cancer surgeon who becomes the target of criminal proceedings by the city in connection with the death of four patients, and Susan Mulderick, played by veteran stage actress Cherry Jones, as the beleaguered head of Memorial’s incident response team. Along with the rest of their staff, these women are exhausted, worried for their loved ones, and facing suffering patients with no clear timeline for relief or ability to ease their pain. They’re also in charge of making fateful decisions that would normally preoccupy an entire classroom of philosophy undergraduates, such as: who evacuates first and who gets last priority? As the days progress, these decisions will get ever more impossible, with consequences that are fatal for some and potentially criminal for others.
Alongside brilliantly acted, stomach-churning scenes of disaster and helplessness is frequent news footage of the days immediately following the disaster. We’re all familiar with the images: families stranded on rooftops waving down helicopters, or trudging through waist-high water carrying what remained of their worldly possessions. But something about these grainy videos set against a slick, highly produced series makes them all the more effective. And the timing is interesting. Sometimes these videos are included for their emotional punch, to drive home to audiences the catastrophic failures of the response teams. But other times they seem to occur for the benefit of the characters, presented almost as premonitions or rapidly edited fast-forward flashes. And in the moments when they show up as doctors are being questioned by investigators, it’s as if they’re still processing the horrors of what they witnessed, or sifting through memories with a clarity that’s only available in hindsight.
You can currently stream the first three episodes of Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+.