New Orleans Is Drowning. Again.

August 29 will mark 15 years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The next day the country watched in horror as the levees broke and thousands of residents who could have been evacuated but were neglected by many levels of government and public safety officials, were forced onto rooftops to await rescue. Many of the rescues were not by government agencies but by fellow citizens with boats in what became the Cajun Navy. For days, people pleaded for rescue. Many did get moved to safety. Many did not. The “official” death toll states that 1577 died in Louisiana. That figure is widely believed to be a large underestimate, as many of the dead and missing came from the neglected fringes of society.

I often return to Mary Gauthier’s poetic description of the the losses and displacement suffered by those affected by the flooding, with many of them evacuated as far away as Houston with no means to return and nothing left in New Orleans to return to after their homes were destroyed.

Although there were too many to count, one of the most tragic developments during the flood was at Memorial Medical Center. The hospital was not evacuated before the storm. It appears that there were at least 45 deaths at the hospital during the time that it was marooned and without electricity, supplies or rescuers. The choices the marooned staff faced were stark and ugly. From a New York Times description in 2009:

Within days, the grisly tableau became the focus of an investigation into what happened when the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina marooned Memorial Medical Center in Uptown New Orleans. The hurricane knocked out power and running water and sent the temperatures inside above 100 degrees. Still, investigators were surprised at the number of bodies in the makeshift morgue and were stunned when health care workers charged that a well-regarded doctor and two respected nurses had hastened the deaths of some patients by injecting them with lethal doses of drugs. Mortuary workers eventually carried 45 corpses from Memorial, more than from any comparable-size hospital in the drowned city.

Charges were filed by the state in 2006 against the doctor and two nurses. The Times continues:

The physician, Anna Pou, defended herself on national television, saying her role was to “help” patients “through their pain,” a position she maintains today. After a New Orleans grand jury declined to indict her on second-degree murder charges, the case faded from view.

In the four years since Katrina, Pou has helped write and pass three laws in Louisiana that offer immunity to health care professionals from most civil lawsuits — though not in cases of willful misconduct — for their work in future disasters, from hurricanes to terrorist attacks to pandemic influenza.

I don’t want to go into details of what might have led Pou and the nurses to hasten death for these patients or even if they did. Instead, let’s just focus on the fact that in such a situation, the health care workers are faced with helping those they can help while knowing that there are some who are destined to die no matter what they do. Further, with such limited resources, effort spent on those destined to die runs the risk of harming those who have a shot at recovery.

Doesn’t that sound familiar? Right now, various hospitals are drawing up their priority lists for allocating life-saving resources when the COVID-19 outbreak overwhelms staff, space and equipment. Note that even in this 2009 article, Pau mentions how the Katrina situation will not be unique and that a pandemic could lead to the very same scenario.

And with that, we come to the story from which the feature image of this post is derived:

A woman who identifies herself an Ochsner Medical Center nurse has published a gut-wrenching post on social media, going into detail about how she has seen coronavirus overwhelm a patient and pleading with the public to say inside “as if your life depended on it.”

Claudia Griffith’s 416-word Facebook post explains how the disease can take over a person’s lungs and kidneys. And “if it makes it to your kidneys, you’re lucky to be alive because your liver is next,” Griffith explains.

The story continues:

“As a nurse you cry at the window knowing there’s nothing you can do,” she writes.


“You spend hours in your (patient’s) room gowned up head to toe sweating and not able to breathe. Then you realize…this is it. I can’t save this patient anymore. You sit there and say your goodbyes while they pass without family or loved ones because nobody is allowed in the hospital for everyone’s safety. You are their only contact and hope. You sit and watch as the (heart rate) and (blood pressure) can’t read anymore. You lost your patient to COVID19. You don’t even know how this virus works but you watch as it kills your patient,” she says.

In a very real sense, those patients she is describing are drowning as the pneumonia from COVID-19 relentlessly fills their lungs just as relentlessly as the Katrina floodwaters rose.

The best I can tell, Ochsner Medical Center in Jefferson and Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans are only four miles from one another. It is such a tragedy that they find themselves in the same dilemma just shy of 15 years apart.

Note that Louisiana doesn’t even make it into the list in the Washington Post article detailing huge disparities in how the Trump Administration is allocating emergency reserves of supplies and ventilators. And you can read here about the dire situation Louisiana hospitals are facing, with maximum capacity likely to be reached by this time next week. The people of New Orleans and all of Louisiana desperately need help, but I fear that we as a country can’t find the way.

17 replies
  1. gnokgnoh says:

    First time poster, long time reader. My friends who work in the NOLA courts are faced with massive cuts in revenues and layoffs, because most of the city’s revenues come from tourism (hospitality taxes). They need help.

    • P J Evans says:

      The woman upstairs from me works at a travel/tour agency. She does European stuff; they’re off work because non-essential. (She’s probably lucky, though – she was supposed to go to Germany a month ago, and couldn’t because of a pinched nerve in her neck.)

  2. rosalind says:

    my small-ish town w/one hospital is the site of the 2nd large outbreak at an elder life care facility in WA State. it currently has 45 residents and staff positive (no update on whether the remaining staff have been tested – as of last week there were not enough tests).

    last week the County announced that hospital staff would be treating patients at the facility itself. i wondered if they would transfer the very ill to the hospital, but suspect they are not. the most recent death of a 90-something woman occurred at the facility. i wonder if a decision was made to provide palliative care only for these patients, but at this point this is only conjecture.

  3. Peterr says:

    15 years ago, I lived in the SF Bay area, and one day woke to find our neighbors had taken in their NOLA relatives who came to California as Katrina refugees. The NOLA diaspora was very widespread, far beyond Houston and the south.

    John Bel Edwards’ decision to wait until after Mardi Gras to declare a state of emergency ranks up there with Ron deSantis’ decision to wait to close the Florida beaches after Spring Break was over. Heckuva job, fellas. Heckuva job.

    • greengiant says:

      On Feb. 25th, Fat Tuesday, the lagging WHO reported 53 US positives with 18 new. In hindsight all governors’ decisions were late.

      • Silly But True says:

        Fat Tuesday Feb. 25 was more than a month after the first in US were infected, and nearly a month after WHO already declared the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, and more than a month after the virus had already been confirmed to spread to at five different countries. LA’s governor and New Orleans’ mayor were the problem.

        OTOH, New Orleans was happy it was another great Mardi Gras, with parade goers lined up shoulder-to-shoulder ten deep along routes filled with locals and travelers alike from all over the world, rubbing elbows and coughing all over each other all weekend long.

    • cathy hightower says:

      Edwards was not informed of the seriousness of he situation prior to Mardi Gras. Memorial Medical Center is now called Ocshner Baptist.

      • bmaz says:

        You have to be kidding me. There were people here on this blog that knew. Edwards gets no pass, that is ridiculous.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        The mayor of Amity Island seems to have been reborn many times around the country. Both DeSantis and Bel Edwards intentionally opened their beaches and encourage people to swim, knowing full well that a white shark was in the water.

        One would have to be as ignorant as Trump – a man who could access the entire federal government to obtain information, if he wanted it (he doesn’t) – to think that their special economic interests (open beaches during Spring break, NOLA’s Mardi Gras), would not result in needless sickness and death. None of that is Monday morning quarterbacking – it was painfully obvious before these events.

  4. Mary M McCurnin says:

    Doctors aid in the deaths of patients all the time. It has been going on forever. It just wasn’t/isn’t spoken about.

    My first husband was an internist. When he was in his first year of practice in Gulfport, I remember waking up as the hospital called him about a patient. He said to push the morphine. I knew that was code to aid in the death of the patient. It was reassuring that he was willing to help in that way. Sort of.

    • Bri2k says:

      I suspected the same thing happened when my mom passed. She’d been shipped to Cleveland Clinic in hope of a liver transplant but she was already too far gone. By the first evening, it was obvious she wasn’t coming back. Her death was as peaceful as one could want.

      I consider the attending physician an angel of mercy.

  5. misteranderson says:

    There’s this article:

    I wonder what Pelosi meant by “we anticipated this…”. I want to ask this community if Congress can actually force effective oversight? By what mechanism? Because I think we can all see that Trump will attempt to do whatever he wants & will try & get away with whatever he can. I always remember the Sopranos episode when they did a “bust out”. They took over a man’s business when he had gambling debts he couldn’t pay & they extracted everything they could & ran up his credit, etc. I think Trump is doing some version of a bust out.

    • vvv says:

      I hope the answer is what appears in the cited article:

      ‘A Democratic aide speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy said Democrats anticipated the president’s move “so that’s why there are multiple layers of strict oversight in this bill.” The aide pointed to a *congressional oversight commission* created by the law in addition to the special inspector general and other provisions.’ [old-school italics mine]

  6. joejim says:

    I can only imagine the dread and the anxiety there. I don’t think the trauma really departs from people and cultures who experience disasters like that, particularly in the event of being so poorly treated during one that ripples out over years.
    For me, even though there are many very different integers, in the last scary weeks, I find myself revisiting AIDS in NYC, where I lived during the worst years. It still feels like yesterday, that raw. So bullshit to the philosophical tropes out there about how adversity is an opportunity to grow or (fill in the blank). Its also an opportunity to have your spirited scorched permanently.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A morbid aspect of this is that caregivers do not know how long conditions will remain dire, how long they will have to work without power, supplies, assistance, or relief. The uncertainty is compounded by stress and lack of sleep. No one who hasn’t been there would know the pain and suffering the patients were enduring and might endure or for how long.

    In a different sense, we have similar concerns about how long we’ll have to live with Trump’s pathology and incompetence, which makes this pandemic so much worse. His position is cynically made secure by his patrons’ and party’s abject refusal to do anything but declare him – in words drawn from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes – You’re the top, the Coliseum, the Louver Museum, a symphony by Strauss and Mickey Mouse. They think him a thrill divine that goes down their spine, a Derby winner and a turkey dinner.

    The sanity of places like this site helps clear away the dangerous fog that surrounds them all.

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