It’s been seventeen years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. Its unprecedented destruction led to much conversation about how the city and government could have better prepared for its landfall and aftermath. The Apple TV+ limited series Five Days at Memorial, based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink, looks at how overloaded one New Orleans hospital was and how a disturbingly high number of patients met their deaths in the midst of an impossible situation.
Five Days of Memorial is framed by interviews with medical professionals after the hurricane has passed, looking back at their actions and how things might have gone differently. Much of the dialogue is ominous, describing how they had no idea what was coming and how they did what they thought was necessary given the lack of resources and support. The music, by Torin Borrowdale, makes the story feel like a thriller, with time pounding just as ferociously as the waters from the storm.
Dramatized scenes based on real events are intercut with archive footage that shows the unbelievable state of the city and its surrounding suburbs, with water levels higher than roofs and people struggling to travel through entirely flooded streets. In the hospital, things are different since that is only seen through television screens, and they contend instead with slowly dripping water from the ceiling and increasingly frequent updates about the worsening condition of the facility.
In its examination of how the staff at the hospital may have been complicit in the deaths of their patients in a way that could have been avoidable, this series hardly places the blame only on them. Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones), who is the incident commander at Memorial Medical Center, is forced to improvise upon learning that there exists no adequate emergency evacuation plan in the case of a flood, and nurses with engineering existence volunteer to check the durability of the hospital’s helipad, which employees surmise has not been used for nearly two decades since the Pope’s visit and may not be able to support a helicopter landing.
Hope comes not only from those within the hospital, like Mulderick and Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga), who take charge to make do with what they have, but also from outsiders who want to step up as they see that the official channels that should theoretically be responsible are standing by and doing nothing. Marc LeBlanc (JD Evermore) and Sandra LeBlanc (Monica Wyche) head in to volunteer when they realize that Marc’s mother is in danger in Memorial’s LifeCare rehab facility. Michael Arvin (Joe Carroll), a regional director for Memorial’s parent company Tenet Healthcare in Texas, tries to find rescue options through other outlets, even though he’s told by his superiors to let government organizations handle it.
While a good amount of time has passed since Katrina hit New Orleans, there will surely be those who believe that it is too soon, if it was ever appropriate, to dramatize events that irreversibly changed the lives of so many who lost their homes and much more. The recreation of the storm is intense and terrifying, and will almost certainly be triggering for those who lived through Katrina or a similar weather disaster. But there is a power to seeing it and to understanding its scope, and this series potently conveys the state of mind of those in the heart of the storm and those watching helplessly from afar. Its initial three-episode premiere offers a window into the beginning of the chaos, and the remaining five episodes, which will debut weekly, promise to deal with the consequences of in-the-moment decisions given a bit of distance and perspective.
Five Days at Memorial premieres with its first three episodes on Friday, August 12th on Apple TV+.