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One On 1 Profile: Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author/Journalist Sheri Fink Pushes Preparedness With Her Work On Katrina And Sandy

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Sheri Fink has worked in multiple crisis zones as an aid worker and reporter and spent six years working on a just-published book about Hurricane Katrina. One year after Hurricane Sandy, her attention is once again on the storm that devastated her home city. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One on 1 profile.

Many journalists covered Hurricane Sandy. But not many are like Sheri Fink.

She's a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, the author of one of the seminal books about Hurricane Katrina, and a medical doctor who has served as an international aid worker in the Balkans, Mozambique and crisis areas around the world.

"It's a helpful background," Fink says. "It's certainly not a prerequisite. There's many reporters who report on these things, who don't have, you know, you don't have to go to med school. But I use it every day."

Fink writes for the online news service Pro Publica, and many of her pieces appear in The New York Times.

We spent the first part of our day with her in the Rockaways, at one of the sites she covered during Hurricane Sandy, the Beacon Rehab and Nursing Center in Rockaway Park, where she interviewed and then got a tour from administrator Laurie Palladino.

Fink: It was all sand when I was here.
Palladino: Exactly. In everything, because everything had to be taken down because we didn't want risk anything with mold.

For the first part of the storm, Fink was embedded with some emergency responders who were sent to check on nursing homes in the Rockaways.

"In the dark, and the patients were cold and there was no power, and they were just waiting for rescue," she says. "And a lot of people were moved in a very dangerous situation. There was a lot of suffering. There were patients separated from their families, their medical records, which is not good, not helpful for their health."

At the time of Hurricane Sandy, Fink was working on a book about a New Orleans hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Mishkin: You're writing this book, which is going to be a big book, and then you have to tell your publisher, "Hey, sorry, I'm going to delay for a bit on that because I going to have to cover this story."
Fink: I felt like I was playing hooky, 'cause the book was due but I couldn't not report on this.

"A huge question in my mind was, had Katrina, had these awful stories of the suffering of the patients and the nursing home residents. had that catalyzed some change? Were we as a nation more prepared?" Fink says. "And what Sandy seemed to show was, maybe not by a lot."

The book is "Five Days at Memorial," first seen as an article in 2009 that earned Fink the Pulitzer Prize.

Fink was not in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She arrived shortly thereafter to volunteer with a public health team there.

Katrina and Sandy were different, but for Fink, they are inextricably linked.

"What was so awful about Sandy was to see the kinds of images that we saw in Katrina of patients being carried down darkened staircases, hand-bagged patients who needed ventilators, for example, which run on electricity. Those kinds of image that we thought we learned from in Katrina we saw again in Sandy."

After our time in the Rockaways, it was on to City Hall, where Fink attended a news conference assessing how New York is faring one year after Sandy and how the city is preparing for the next storm.

She said the mentality in the sciences used to be that you could not learn from such disasters because they were too extreme.

"When somebody proposed studying things like mortality in a disaster or medical care in disaster, people said, 'Oh, that's a crazy idea. How could you possibly do it in the chaos of a disaster?'" Fink says. "But now, we realize that we have a duty to do that. We have a duty to learn from these awful experiences so we can better protect people."

Fink graduated from the University of Michigan, and then, while at Stanford Medical School in the '90s, she visited medical students and doctors working during the war in the Balkans. It became her first book, "War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival."

On one visit to a makeshift medical tent on the border of Kosovo and Macedonia, she was made a triage officer, determining which patients should go where.

"That's the empathy that I had, kind of writing about the doctors and nurses in Katrina, because they faced that awful triage decision: Who do you save first?" she says.

One episode in the Balkans confused her: a party held for volunteer doctors and nurses.

"I asked one of the doctors, I said, 'How can you just be smiling and laughing? All these people out there, and they're suffering, and they don't have homes, and there's bombing going on,'" she says. "And I was like, it was my first time in a situation like this, and he looked at me and he said, 'You know, I've worked in about 15 of these, and we are here to do something to help other people, and we have to do this for ourselves.'"

Fink decided to forego a more traditional medical practice, opting for reporting and volunteering as an international aid worker. She says it took a long time to make the decision, and not simply because being a freelance writer isn't as lucrative as being a doctor.

"I had invested time in learning to being a doctor, and society had invested in me. I had a space at a medical school, a fine medical school, and I wanted to make sure that I felt like I was going to be able to use that training in a meaningful way," she says. "That I grappled with, definitely."

Fink has lived in New York since 1998. She says that going to international sites of crisis for months at a time isn't the hard part. Coming home is.

"There's a bit of a period of reclimatization, I guess. But I think you see that here, too, like, after Sandy, after Katrina," she says. "Some of this stuff just takes a long time, and when that sense hits people, and I think that's in a way harder than that initial period, where you're working, and you're working night and day, but you're working with purpose and you're feeling more progress, and then that pace of progress kind of slows down."

Fink was able to joke about the dark subject of "Five Days at Memorial" during an appearance on The Daily Show.

Fink: I guess you haven't read my first book about a hospital in a genocide.
Stewart: Is that your first book?
Fink: Yeah, so this is lighter.

However, she is absolutely serious about the role of journalist as watchdog.

"In some of the health and hospital corporation, the public hospital facilities, that they had known that they had these vulnerabilities, they wanted to make these improvements," she says. "Now, the money is flowing so that they can. It shouldn't have to be that way. We shouldn't have to suffer before, you know, until that time that these resources come through."

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