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Mother Nature behaved as everyone warned one day she would, but human nature never fails to surprise. Stripped of safety and comfort, survivors made their choices: greed, mercy, mischief, gallantry, depravity or a surrender to despair. So nurses hand-pumped the ventilators of dying patients after the generators and then the batteries failed, while outside the hospitals, snipers fired at ambulances, and invading looters with guns demanded that doctors turn over whatever drugs they had. Hijackers shot the tires of fleeing vehicles, slapped the spares on after the owners escaped and drove the cars away themselves. Some police officers battled the looters; others joined them. As the floodwaters rose, EMS technicians told TIME they were left stranded at the downtown Hampton Inn by panicking cops who jumped into their private cars to flee the city. In the wretched Superdome, where several people died before they could get out, a young violinist took out his instrument and played a Bach adagio. "These people have nothing," he told a Los Angeles Times reporter. "I have a violin. And I should play for them."
Around the country, people watched the scene in growing horror, as babies and old people and diabetics and those worn out surviving the storm died on live television for all to see. Churches started assembling comfort kits; 500,000 hot meals a day are being prepared by Red Cross disaster volunteers. "I just had a gentleman walk in off the street and write a $10,000 check," said a Red Cross director in Massachusetts. She'd never seen him before; he had no family down there. He just said it seemed the right thing to do.
The private response was all the more urgent because the public one seemed so inept. Somehow Harry Connick Jr. could get to the New Orleans Convention Center and offer help, but not the National Guard. Bush praised the "good work" on Thursday, then called the results "not acceptable" on Friday. By then, 55 nations had offered to pitch in--including Sri Lanka, whose disaster scars are still fresh. "Get off your asses, and let's do something," New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin raged in a radio interview that he ended in tears. But he of all people was in a position to understand the odds. A city known both for its charm and its rot, not just from the termites consuming whole neighborhoods but from a corrupt police force, dissolving tax base, neglected infrastructure, rising poverty and a murder rate that inspired old-timers to pack a gun beneath their tuxes on their way to the Mardi Gras parade, could hardly have been less equipped to cope with a catastrophe that everyone knew was coming. "Half of Louisiana is under water," former lawmaker Billy Tauzin used to say, "and the other half is under indictment." Three of the top state emergency officials were recently indicted for mishandling disaster funds.