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For the first time ever, a major U.S. city was simply taken offline, closed down. Food and water and power and phones were gone; authority was all but absent. Most of the people left to cope were least equipped: the ones whose Social Security checks were just about due, or those who made for the Greyhound station only to find it already closed, or those confined to bed or who used a wheelchair. "We're seeing people that we didn't know exist," declared Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown in a moment of hideous accidental honesty. Rescue workers could hear people pounding on roofs from the inside, trapped in attics as the waters rose. The lucky ones were able to cut holes with knives and axes to reach the open air. Emergency workers hovered from house to house, plucking out the living, leaving bodies behind. The potential for a disaster in the air was such that pilots told TIME reporter Adam Pitluk, who was embedded with them, to help scan the skies for stray news helicopters and sightseers in Cessnas among the flocks of military craft. "It was like a pickup game," said Lieut. Commander Bill Howey, a Navy helicopter pilot. "You got three or four different types of Army helicopters, same for the Navy. Then there's Customs, Coast Guard, Marines, and then there are the news helicopters." While rescuing a group of blind people trapped for five days, a Marine helicopter pilot told TIME's Tim Padgett, "It's like flying into a hornets' nest."
When Dr. Greg Henderson, a pathologist turned field medic, arrived at the Convention Center on Friday, he was the only doctor for 10,000 people. "They're stacking the dead on the second floor," he told TIME by phone. "People are having seizures in the hallway. People with open running sores, every imaginable disease and disorder, all kinds of psychiatric problems. We have people who haven't had dialysis in several days. They'll be going into kidney failure. I just closed the door on a man who ran out of medicine for his kidney transplant. Very soon his body is going to go into rejection." Henderson went in with New Orleans police, and when people saw him in scrubs, they surged at him from every side. He tried to tend the sickest and the babies first. "The crowds here have gotten a bad rap. There are not many human beings you could cram into a building with 10,000 others, in 105° heat, that wouldn't get just a little pissed off." He tried to get them settled and asked them to show him the sickest. "And they lead me. It's not a subtle thing. It's generally the ones who are seizing on the floor."
Helicopters airlifted the sick from around the city to the airport, converted into a field hospital where patients were being pushed around on luggage carts and triaged for evacuation. At Lakefront Airport on the edge of the city, fights broke out for seats on the departing choppers. "The gang bangers," said Jimmy Dennis, 34, a Lakefront Airport fire fighter who had been up for two nights trying to keep order, "couldn't understand that we had to get the sick people out first." Frightened, the small band of fire fighters called in 10 New Orleans police with semiautomatic weapons to settle the crowd.