John Ridley felt like he knew what happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
And then he was approached by writer-producer Carlton Cuse, who had secured the rights to "Five Days at Memorial." The book by Sheri Fink is based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into what happened at a New Orleans hospital where, in the days after the 2005 hurricane, 45 bodies of patients were found — patients who allegedly were euthanized before the hospital was evacuated.
Cuse, best known as the producer of the hit series "Lost," and Ridley, the Mequon native No Studios founder and Oscar-winning screenwriter ("12 Years a Slave"), are executive producers of a new limited series based on the book.
The eight-episode series, also called "Five Days at Memorial," begins streaming Aug. 12 on Apple TV+.
“I sincerely went into it with, ‘Katrina hit, and it was bang-bang.’ Katrina was the disaster, … yes, I knew that the levees broke. But it was like, well, it hit, it broke, it was bad," Ridley said. "Not that there was this big time period where lives could have been saved, where people could have been evacuated, where the word could have gotten out, where preparation could’ve been made.
"This was not a tsunami. … Here, there was time. There’s a character who talks about, ‘We had a day. And we didn’t know, and if somebody had warned us, we could have done things differently.' So that, to me, that big misremembrance of that gap in my memory that really informed … many things that were going forward in the story.”
Lessons, and opportunities, lost at New Orleans hospital
The "Five Days at Memorial" limited series starts with the hurricane, and with the hospital staff bracing for the storm's impact on the building and their patients.
Among the staff are Dr. Anna Pou (played by Vera Farmiga), a well-respected head and neck cancer surgeon; Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones), the hospital's director of nursing and head of Memorial's emergency disaster committee; Dr. Bryant King (Cornelius Smith Jr.), new to the hospital and one of the few Black doctors on its staff; Karen Wynn (Adepero Oduye), nurse manager of the hospital's intensive care unit and head of its ethics committee; and Dr. Horace Baltz (Robert Pine), one of the hospital's longest-serving physicians and a voice of calm amid the chaos.
When the hurricane deals New Orleans a glancing blow, the hospital staff thinks they've made it through the worst of it. Then, a day later, the levees break and soon Memorial is without power, without a way to get patients to safety quickly and with questions about what can be done for the worst-off among those in their care.
On the fifth day, patients and staff are ordered to evacuate the hospital. But it becomes clear that not all of the patients can be moved, and unclear when they might be rescued. When people return to the hospital, they find 45 bodies, with autopsies showing a number of them have been given enough painkillers to kill them.
Ridley wrote the first five episodes of "Five Days From Memorial," which cover from when the hurricane hits to when the hospital is finally evacuated. (He also directed three of them.)
The last three episodes cover the investigation into what happened, focusing on Pou's actions during the last days of disaster and her role in the patients' deaths — and how, despite the investigators' diligence, the powers that be, from the local medical establishment to health care systems to the government, close ranks to protect each other. (Pou and two intensive care nurses were charged with second-degree murder, but the charges against the nurses were later dropped, and a grand jury decided not to indict Pou.)
The decision not to 'shoehorn in' a villain
While the series takes viewers deep into the horrors of what happened at Memorial, it notably doesn't have a central villain.
““If … in telling that story, we've got to shoehorn in that one person so the audience ‘gets’ it, they’re actually doing a disservice to the audience in letting them think, ‘Well, gosh, if they’d gone after that one person, this never would have happened,’” Ridley said.
Instead, "Five Days at Memorial" shows what happens when bad things happen in broken systems that we've just chosen to tolerate.
“If you have a flawed system, you can take a good person, put them in a bad system, bad things will happen," Ridley said. "Take a bad person, put them in a bad system, you get Katrina.”
And bad systems have a bigger impact on the vulnerable communities that rely on them.
"If we don’t deal with it, not only will these disasters continue, there are groups of people who are disproportionately affected (by them)," Ridley said. "That’s another reason why I wanted to tell this story, because it really does affect Black and brown communities as so many biases and systemic issues do.”
And while it's tempting to think that something like Hurricane Katrina and the horrors that happened to New Orleans and Memorial were a once-in-a-lifetime thing, part of the point of "Five Days at Memorial" is that much of what happened could, unless those systemic failures are addressed, happen again.
"When there’s a mechanical failure in your car, you go to a mechanic and go, 'Fix this part, I don’t want that part ever in my car again. That should never happen again' … ," Ridley said. "When it comes to systemic failure, we’ve got to look at the human element. People are always, 'Well, we don’t want to change that human element.' 'Well, why are you talking about me?' 'Oh well, that happened a hundred years ago, so that can’t have any correlation to what’s going on now.'
"It’s true, it’s real, if we don’t fix it, expect it to happen again and again and again. And it does.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: John Ridley talks about making Apple TV+'s 'Five Days at Memorial'