‘Five Days at Memorial’ — A medical ethics crisis in the wake of Katrina

How medical staff copes with an impossible situation

Robert Pine (left) and Cornelius Smith Jr. star in “Five Days at Memorial,” premiering Friday on Apple TV+.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still fresh in our minds, a limited series like “Five Days at Memorial” seems especially relevant.

Premiering Friday, Aug. 12, on Apple TV+, the eight-part docudrama from executive producers Carlton Cuse (“Lost”) and John Ridley (“Guerrilla”) tells the story of five days in late summer of 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and Memorial Hospital was in the crosshairs of a catastrophic flood.

Initially, after the storm blew through, the hospital remained intact and staffers were relieved to have apparently survived the worst. But when a levee broke across town, it sent a 15-foot wall of water into the hospital, which was full patients, employees and locals who had taken refuge there. And when it became apparent that the very ill and infirm could not possibly survive the rising waters, it forced exhausted caregivers to play God and make decisions that would follow them for years.

Vera Farmiga stars in “Five Days at Memorial,” premiering Friday on Apple TV+.

The series is based on the book by Sheri Fink and stars Vera Farmiga (“Bates Motel”), Cherry Jones (“Succession”), Julie Ann Emery (“Preacher”), Cornelius Smith Jr. (“Scandal”) and Robert Pine (“CHiPs”).

With the COVID-19 pandemic still fresh in his mind, Cuse became fascinated with the idea of decision-making in a crisis and made what he calls a “disaster thriller that morphs into a medical ethics drama.”

“I think the thing that really locked me into the story,” he says, “was how do you prioritize life in a crisis situation, is such a fascinating and resonant ethical issue and it’s an almost unsolvable one. Anytime humans are placed in the untenable position of having to make moral and ethical judgments about which human life is more important than another, that’s an impossible scenario.

“And these people were stuck in this hospital as a result of a disaster that they had no fault in and were trying to do the best they could to make judgments and decisions about how to get through this horrendous set of circumstances. And that to me just felt like incredibly great drama to put on the screen.”

The series filmed last summer in Canada and New Orleans, which had just been hit by Hurricane Ida when Cuse and his team arrived. So shooting took on an eerie quality as destruction from the storm was all around.

“It was really powerful, actually,” he says, “to be there and to see the destruction from one hurricane while we were trying to recreate the destruction from another one and kind of feel a little bit more viscerally what it’s like to be in that city in the aftermath of a powerful hurricane. … We worked hard to try to create a sense of authenticity to the whole thing.”

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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