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 first recounts the nightmare inside the hospital over four