We all remember Katrina. The natural disaster of the hurricane, and the piss-poor response from local, state and federal agencies in its aftermath, remains one of the low points of modern America. Like many, I was shocked, and ashamed, that anyone had to live through something so awful. And I was angry that so many had to struggle so hard, for so long, without adequate assistance.
Many, I am sure, are still struggling today.
But I live far from New Orleans. And with time, Katrina faded from my memory.
That is, until I read Sheri Fink’s 5 Days At Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital. * If you followed the Katrina news, you probably remember at least the broad strokes of what happened at Memorial – during the immediate aftermath of the storm, with floodwater surrounding the hospital, and evacuation happening in a haphazard and unpredictable way, a number of staff people allegedly euthanized patients.
However if you’re like me, you only remember the barest outline of the story and know little of what happened to the people involved after CNN stopped carrying it on the evening news.
Well the full story is here and it is a tragic and disturbing. Fink recounts it in detail, giving us an almost moment-by-moment account of what happened in Memorial during the storm and of the investigation that happened after. By and large it’s a nuanced presentation of complex situation. No one comes off as an obvious villain and few remain virtuous.
It’s creates a haunting book full of the kind of moral challenges I don’t normally get in my reading. You should check it out. Though the story of Katrina is familiar, I was still shocked by the chaos of the situation and troubled by the decisions made throughout the storm by the government, hospital management, and the health care providers. We want everyone to be perfect, to always make the right call, but they don’t. And it is clear from the first moments of the storm that this group of people, at this hospital, were woefully unprepared for what was to come.
I wish different decisions had been made at Memorial (and I am not just talking about the alleged euthanasia). I’m sure some of those who were there do as well. But hindsight is twenty-twenty and perhaps, as one of the doctors under investigation argued, you cannot judge what happened unless you were there.
There is some validity to this argument. Yet isn’t judging situations in which we were not involved exactly what we ask our juries to do everyday? At the heart of every trial is the weighing of evidence and the delivery of a verdict of guilt or innocence by people who were, by necessity, not there.
Are there situations too extreme for our society to judge by its normal standards? Was Katrina one of them? I finished the book with no answers. And I’m still wrestling with the questions, bringing it up at every dinner party and group run I attend. Its not something many people want to discuss, but I can’t stop thinking about it. And that is as strong an endorsement as I can give any book.