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Special Edition: Journalist Sheri Fink On Book 'Five Days At Memorial'

"Today, a special edition of Sound Medicine. For the entire program, we're looking back at one of the most gripping chapters of recent American history: The days after Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed the Gulf Coast and then the levees broke, flooding the city of New Orleans. We'll examine what happened and why at Memorial Hospital. News reports from that week in late August of 2005,” says host Barbara Lewis. 

“In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana state officials have now opened an investigation officially into a doctor’s allegation that the staff at one hospital talked about euthanizing some gravely ill patients as the flood waters rose in New Orleans…”

Lewis: Journalist Sheri Fink who’s a physician herself spent years tracking down the people who were trapped inside Memorial during the flood. Both patients and their families and the doctors, nurses and staff members who worked at Memorial. She wanted to understand what the conditions were that led to 45 deaths, some under very unusual circumstances. Fink won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting in 2010 and her book “Five Days at Memorial” is just out in paperback. When we spoke with her last year, Sheri Fink told us that Memorial hospital had a history of flooding problems.

Fink: It was founded in 1926 as a faith-based hospital, a Southern Baptist hospital. Within a few weeks of its opening, there was a flood. Like in many cities that were rapidly developing there was a lot of building going on above ground, but the kinds of pumps that were needed in this city below sea level to pump that rain water out of the way and into the neighboring lakes was overwhelmed, and this hospital was one of the worst hit businesses in the city, in terms of how much of a loss that they took. And then in 1927, just in advance of the famous Mississippi floods, there was a horrible rain storm and again, the area flooded. There was this debate over how much do we spend to protect our city from these very foreseeable but possibly rare occurrences. And then the storm passed and people started getting back to their normal lives and the improvements weren’t made and they were hit again just within a year. The situation in 2005 was that the city had developed and there had been some improvements in the pumping systems but as we learned, the levy systems were faulty… But the hospital itself had a vulnerability that its leaders noted within the year before Katrina: That yes, it had generators. They had been moved up to the second floor in a building phase in the 1970s or 1980s, but in a generator system if you think about it’s really only as strong as its weakest part. It’s a circuit. And the switches were below flood level. And the chief of the plant operations noted about a year before the storm that improvements needed to be made; That if there were just four feet of street flooding, they were in danger of losing power to the majority of the facility.

This segment is the first part of our interview with Sheri Fink. The show originally aired on Dec. 1, 2013.