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‘Five Days at Memorial’ looks at Hurricane Katrina’s impact on a New Orleans hospital

Araya Doheny/FilmMagic via Getty Images

(LOS ANGELES) -- As the entire city of New Orleans witnessed after Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t the storm that did the most damage, but the flooding that followed. That was the case for Memorial Hospital, as chronicled in the new Apple TV+ series Five Days at Memorial.

The hospital structure survived the hurricane, but the flooding took out the power, made rescues almost impossible, and after days in the sweltering heat, medical staff were forced to make controversial ethical choices.

ABC News entertainment correspondent Jason Nathanson told series co-creator and director John Ridley that with the dark hallways, flickering lights, and the stench of death, Five Days at Memorial felt more like a horror series than something that really happened.

“These are human beings. It really happened. It's frightening because it's happened subsequent to this,” Ridley said. “It can happen at any point. It's frightening for me because you see traditionally marginalized communities, black and brown folks who are bearing the brunt of this. It's scary because it's real.”

Carlton Cuse, the co-creator of the TV show Lost, first got the idea to adapt this story for television, after reading Sherri Finke’s book about what happened at Memorial.

“This was the most exhaustive piece of fantastic journalism and nonfiction writing she spent six years working on,” said Cuse. “I interviewed over 500 people and, you know, tell the story of these 2000 souls trapped in this hospital.”

Cuse was also the executive producer of Bates Motel, and he knew he wanted its star, Vera Farmiga, for the role of Dr. Anna Pou – who was accused of giving patients overdoses of drugs, leading to their deaths.

There were so many tragedies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and 17 years later, for many, those stories either run together, people forget, or they didn’t know in the first place. Cornelius Smith Jr. — who plays Dr. Bryant King — said the story of Memorial was new to him.

“I was kind of, you know, surprised and horrified that I had not learned about this,” he said. “And that the first time I was hearing about it was through an audition. It was like, oh, wow. Like, where have I been? And wait. What happened? They did what now?”

And to learn this story, and be a part of recreating it for months, John Ridley said it’s the kind of thing you can’t really shake off when you go home each night.

“I certainly mentally it took a toll,” said Ridley. “You know, when you're having a bad day on set and you realize you're only replicating, as you say, a fraction of true story and you're having trouble getting through the day or you're hot or people are tired as happens on set.”

Cherry Jones plays Susan Mulderick in the series – the nursing director and incident commander at Memorial when Katrina Hit. She was in charge of executing the emergency plan in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – turns out there wasn’t really a plan in place for what they were going through.

“I think from August 12th on, this series will be presented to nursing classes on ethics and death and dying, and that she's always thought she knew what she would do in almost any situation and that she now has some soul searching to do,” said Jones.

Five Days at Memorial is streaming now, on Apple TV+.

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