The book isn't a whistle-blowing indictment of Sheriff Gusman's decision not to evacuate the prison, nor does it provide a cultural, psychological and sociological examination of the Orleans prison system under siege. It is simply a firsthand look at the brutal reality of 7,000 people -- prison personnel, inmates and civilians -- who were marooned at the flooded parish prison for five days following Katrina.
"The ACLU has a 400-page lawsuit on the Internet (Inglese is referring to the American Civil Liberties Union report, "Abandoned and Abused: Orleans Parish Prisoners in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina"), so there's a need for the other side of the story," Inglese says. "There were these brave men and women who risked everything, but what makes it even more important ... the heroes in this story were victims -- they had loved ones that had died. One nurse's brother died; she knew it and continued to work. Many nurses from East New Orleans knew they had lost everything."
Unlike some parts of the city where there was a lull between the storm and the catastrophic flooding, the prison complex, made up of 13 buildings, almost immediately devolved into a crisis. By early Monday evening, Aug. 29, 2005, most of the prison had lost even generator power and water was threatening to flood first floors. Dr. Sam Gore, in charge of the jail's infirmary, which held AIDS and cancer inmate patients, diabetics, handicapped and other high-needs inmates, was told by his building's warden, Chief Rudy Belisle, not to evacuate the patients to higher floors even though water was lapping at the edge of the infirmary. When raw sewage began seeping through the infirmary's floor grates, Gore pushed the envelope and demanded patients be evacuated and an overwhelmed Belisle relented.
Nurses using "penlights they held in their mouths, biting down on the switches to keep them lit," carried essential equipment and supplies up slippery stairs to the third floor. Even more treacherous was moving the handicapped patients, especially an extremely overweight paraplegic squeezed into a wheelchair.
"It took four men to move the inmate, who screamed with fear and pain when they brushed open sores on his back and buttocks," Inglese writes. "These sores are going to get soaked with sewage, Sam realized as the wheelchair splashed in floodwater. How he wished they had done this earlier."
Not much later, Inglese found himself in a similarly brutal situation when he and another doctor, Gary French, attempted to transport a possible heart attack victim to an open hospital. Under normal conditions, someone experiencing a cardiac event at OPP would have been rushed to a hospital in an ambulance. With the streets awash, Inglese and French had to place the patient, a 450-pound deputy, in a small boat, and make their through the surrounding darkness of the city where the occasional disconnected cry for help and cracks of gunfire pierced through the silence.
As the men approached Tulane Medical Center, the boat bottomed out and they were forced to walk with their arms draped around the deputy -- who was suffering from crushing chest pains and gasping for breath -- through foul, thigh-deep floodwaters. When they reached Tulane, a guard told them the hospital was closed. The doctors decided to try the VA Medical Center. When they arrived at the VA, they found it hads electricity and was staffed with doctors and nurses. Inglese brought the deputy into the emergency room, explained the critical situation, and was promptly told to go elsewhere.
"They said 'We don't care -- administration said it's closed.' It's fully lit, air-conditioned, dry and [medical personnel] were sitting there playing cards," Inglese recalled during a recent interview. "It was one of the most shocking things that's happened to me in medicine."
Inglese threatened the physician in charge with a lawsuit if he didn't take the critically ill deputy, and eventually the deputy was admitted.
Even though much of the book, like the scenes described here, is written in a pulse-racing style and Inglese's coauthor, Diana G. Gallagher, normally pens thrillers like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series, many readers will want something more than a roller coaster ride through five days of hell. They will expect answers for questions like: Why didn't Sheriff Gusman evacuate the prison after Mayor Nagin announced a mandatory evacuation? Where was Gusman (he's hardly mentioned in the book) during this ordeal? Was there an evacuation plan and is there one for the future?
Inglese isn't an investigative journalist or a historian, and he doesn't try to provide any answers to these kinds of nagging queries. When asked about OPP's overall performance in the aftermath of the storm, Inglese was reluctant to give an opinion other than to say, "This is not the story of Sheriff Gusman -- this is what happens to me and my four good friends during the hurricane and those five days."
Sheriff Gusman didn't offer many details but did defend his prison administration when contacted about Inglese's book. In a prepared statement, Gusman wrote: "I have not read this book, therefore I can't comment on its accuracy. We have modified and improved our emergency plans. The vertical evacuation plan, which had been in use for a number of years, was successful. The jail also served as a shelter of last resort for a number of family members, friends and others who had no means to evacuate. Everyone made it out of our facilities safely. We have a coordinated plan with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety & Corrections and the Louisiana Sheriffs for future events that may warrant an evacuation out of the City."
It's admirable that Inglese wants to defend his staff against the damning ACLU report. Even though some inmates might disagree, the book does stand as a testimony to some of OPP's intrepid personnel -- nurses, doctors, deputies and others -- and Inglese doesn't exactly whitewash the actions of those who were less than brave, although he doesn't name any of these people. That's his choice, but as the prison's medical director, a more critical assessment of the hell on earth that was the Orleans Parish Prison in the aftermath of Katrina would help determine if anyone was responsible, if anything could have been done to avoid it, and what's being planned for the future. That ultimately might be something only the courts can decide.