Civilisation has a very thin veneer. Acts of terrorism, wars, famines and disasters strip away the carefully accumulated rules that hold societies, even sophisticated ones, together. Sheri Fink, a doctor turned investigative journalist, puts one traumatic event at the heart of a prominent catastrophe under the microscope, holding up for our inspection the dystopian underbelly of a great American city and the moral dilemmas that face people in severe crises.
Five Days at Memorial is a gigantic piece of work, supported by ProPublica (a non-profit-making ‘newsroom’) and the New York Times magazine, that exhaustively explores what happened in one New Orleans hospital – the Memorial Medical Center – when Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf coast in August 2005, claiming nearly 2,000 lives and rendering the flood defences useless and the rescue procedures a shambles. Four years after 9/11, America was primed for a terrorist attack but not for an act of God.
Fink is an investigator the likes of which we don’t have this side of the Atlantic: she interviewed over 500 people, read every scrap of information available concerning the hurricane and has omitted nothing. The story falls into two halves. The