It was tense and sweaty on the set of “Five Days at Memorial,” the new Apple TV+ limited series about systemic and personal failure at a New Orleans hospital in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The cast, emotionally invested and physically exhausted, was wiped out.
It was time to play some mafia.
The free-wheeling, ice-breaking role-playing game, also known as Werewolf, is a favorite of Cornelius Smith Jr., who beats the distraught Dr. Bryant King stars in ‘Memorial’. He’ll bring it out when the bond is in order, and to hear the cast of “Memorial” tell it, they would have withered if they hadn’t gotten together when the cameras stopped rolling.
“It was really extraordinary because here we told this story that’s not just laughter — it’s a very deep story, a very disturbing story, a very heavy story,” Smith said in a video interview from Washington, DC, where he played Frederick Douglass in the musical ‘American Prophet’. “So it was nice to counter that with a very joyful relationship and spend quality time with castmates and really develop a bond off-camera.”
The eight-episode “Five Days at Memorial,” which premieres Friday, may indeed be some heavy sledding. Based on Sheri Fink’s 2013 book, an adaptation of her Pulitzer-winning research paper for ProPublica and DailyExpertNews Magazine, it tells the story of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, where 45 bodies were found in the wake of Katrina, in September 2005. (Sold in 2006, the hospital is now Ochsner Baptist Medical Center).
The hospital was flooded, power and generators were out. Chaos reigned. Several health care providers at the scene expressed concern that patients had been given lethal injections during the evacuation process.
Both the book and the series describe the Memorial Crisis as a series of impossible decisions, made by flawed individuals under unimaginable pressure, and a complete systemic collapse. In that sense, it is a microcosm of Katrina, with a death toll of over 1,800 people.
In a video interview, Fink, who was also a producer on the series, pointed out that the hospital had a 101-page bioterrorism plan. After all, this was the post-9/11 era. But there was no emergency plan for evacuation by water.
“I really hope people watch the series and think carefully about the consequences of not investing in preparedness for rare, but potentially catastrophic and highly foreseeable conditions,” Fink said in a video call. “A hurricane and a flood in New Orleans were very foreseeable.”
The failure rate at the Memorial disaster, and Katrina in general, was staggering indeed.
Read more about extreme weather
“If you have this kind of system failure, it’s also a mechanical failure,” said John Ridley, who created the series with Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Bates Motel”). “It’s an electronic malfunction. And it is a human failure. You have to look at how people interact with each other in the systems we build.”
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, hospital administrators rode the equivalent of a victory lap and breathed a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, the dikes, which began to collapse almost immediately, were getting worse. Then came the severe flooding. (Readers unfamiliar with what happened next may want to stop reading now.)
The show features several Memorial employees, including Dr. Anna Pou (played by Vera Farmiga), who plans to provide “comfort” to patients they thought would be difficult to evacuate, in the form of injections. Someone, you keep thinking, has to pay for this. But nobody does. (Pou, along with nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, played by Sharron Matthews and Sarah Allen, were later arrested on multiple counts of principal to second-degree murder, but were never charged by a grand jury.)
Viewers will likely be outraged by some of the events depicted. However, the creators of the series argue that thirst for revenge is futile. For them, it was an impossible situation, with no obvious villains.
“We didn’t want to dictate how people should feel about this story — we didn’t want to take sides,” Cuse said in a video interview. “I’m curious where people are coming up with all this and what different opinions people have about how it went.”
One character that definitely has an opinion is King. He looks around and notices that something is rotten at Memorial. He is annoyed by the idea of lethal injections.
He’s also one of a handful of black doctors at the hospital — and the only one on duty during the crisis. He can see that most of the people affected by the outage are black, as are most of the people seeking help who are rejected. King is well aware of this, even as it unfolds.
“I like to say that race is another character in the series,” Smith said. “It is there whether you want to acknowledge it or not. It plays a role in how we all perceive things in life.”
“They’re in New Orleans,” he added. “It is a predominantly African American community. And what he experiences is clearly outlined for him per race. That’s what he sees.”
Farmiga recognized that human failure was ubiquitous. “There was incompetence at every level of leadership,” she said in a video call. But she also defended Pou’s commitment to help, pointing out that she remained on duty after being told she could go home.
“She wasn’t on the phone book that day,” Farmiga said. “She was motivated by humanitarian aid. She chose to face those excruciating circumstances. That takes an extraordinary amount of courage.”
“Five Days at Memorial” was initially chosen as the film by producer Scott Rudin, then by producer Ryan Murphy, who planned to use it for his anthology series “American Crime Story”. When Murphy scrapped those plans, Cuse dropped by, Fink won, and approached Ridley to become his partner.
Fink loved the idea of making “Memorial” a limited series, with the time and dedication to present a detailed and balanced edit.
“It just seemed like a great way to tell this story because if it happened in a movie, there wouldn’t be enough time to bring out all the nuance,” she said. “It is a long and detailed book, a journalistic work that has lasted many years.” (Fink, who was a staff reporter at ProPublica when her article was published, is now a domestic correspondent for DailyExpertNews.)
Cuse is well aware of the parallels with a more recent health crisis. He remembers his partner Ridley, who reminds him of the adage that history doesn’t repeat itself, but rhymes. And so “Five Days of Memorial” went into production during the global health crisis of Covid-19, one for which many argue the United States was ill-prepared.
“Rather than the question of who should get in a helicopter to evacuate, we’re dealing with who gets a ventilator or who gets a vaccine or who gets a monoclonal antibody,” Cuse said.
Some of “Memorial” was shot in New Orleans, but much of it was shot in a custom-built four-million-gallon water tank just outside of Toronto. Cast and crew had to be quarantined when entering Canada from the United States due to the pandemic. It was a stressful process and a prelude to a stressful shoot.
They knew, however, that unlike the characters they portrayed, they would return to their ordered lives when their work was done—that they eventually pretend. And they knew they had to do it right.
“I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to the people of New Orleans, to the survivors,” Farmiga said. “It’s their heartache. It’s their trauma. It’s their story.”