Was it murder?

Deborah Friedell

  • Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
    Atlantic, 558 pp, £14.99, February 2014, ISBN 978 1 78239 374 0

When Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, ordered the city to evacuate for Hurricane Katrina on 28 August 2005, two days later than he should have, he exempted hospital staff. There were 2500 patients in hospitals and nursing homes, and no plan for getting them out. Memorial Medical Center had 238 patients, some of them moved there from another hospital, which had been considered less safe. Six hundred Memorial employees – doctors, nurses, administrators, technicians, pharmacists, therapists, cooks, janitors, security guards – also decided to stay, many more than necessary, and many of them also brought their families and pets with them. The hospital was large, modern, well regarded: most of the staff had sat out hurricanes there before. They stayed because they felt a duty to their patients and because the roads out of the city were clogged; there was no public transport. There were probably more than two thousand people and more than a hundred cats and dogs at Memorial on 29 August, when it started raining.

The hospital administrators thought they were prepared for a major hurricane, or indeed for almost any disaster. Their Emergency Preparedness Committee had met every year to talk through 47 different scenarios, including volcanic eruptions (there are no volcanoes in Louisiana) and a ‘VIP situation’, such as an injured head of state. After 9/11, it put together a plan more than a hundred pages long for dealing with a bioterrorist attack; its plan for a hurricane was 11 pages, and useless. The committee assumed that the hospital’s emergency generator could run for three days, although it had never been tested for that long and was kept in a basement, several metres below sea level. When the city lost electricity and the emergency generator failed, the people inside Memorial stopped thinking of it as a hospital. Foul water rose eight feet high. Without air-conditioning, the temperature was above 40ºC. The plumbing system stopped working, as did the phones, refrigerators and lifts. The morgue flooded and they ran out of body bags. The stink of human shit, dog shit, the dead, was inescapable.

There were rumours that New Orleans had fallen to armed gangs, also that drug addicts were on their way to raid the hospital’s supplies. Most of New Orleans was black, but most of the doctors and administrators at Memorial were white. ‘I figured, what would they do, these crazy black people who think they’ve been oppressed for all these years by white people,’ one of the doctors told Sheri Fink. ‘I mean if they’re capable of shooting at somebody, why are they not capable of raping them or, you know, dismembering them? What’s to prevent them from doing things like that?’ In his memoir – self-published, self-justifying – the chief of medicine, Richard Deichmann, claimed it was necessary to shut down the hospital fast because ‘patients with all kinds of serious infections … in intimate, unsanitary conditions with everyone else’ could be an ‘explosive incubator for an infectious disease outbreak’.[*] Even so, he was ‘startled’ when a nurse asked him if it would be humane to euthanise the sickest patients. ‘Euthanasia’s illegal,’ he remembers saying.

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[*] Code Blue: A Katrina Physician’s Memoir was published in 2008.