updated 8/16/2004 9:52:25 AM ET 2004-08-16T13:52:25

Guest:Chris Palladino, Bernie Rayno

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?  At least 10 dead, at least a quarter-million buildings struck, at least $3 billion in damage.  And those numbers are just for Lee County, Florida.  The state digs out and dries out from Hurricane Charley.  The Carolinas hit next.  The northern Atlantic seaboard getting out of this easy.  Only six inches of rain as far north as New York. 

And the politicians trying to figure out if it‘s too early to go to the scene and when it will be too late.  Full coverage of the most devastating American storm in a dozen years. 

And the day‘s other news.  Najaf destabilizes further.  Al Qaeda regroups.  New Jersey headline writers have a field day with their governor.  And look, a kitty.  

All that and more now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.  What it says about our culture is up for debate.  That it says something about our culture is not.  Disney World was open today, so, too, Universal Studios, Orlando, and Epcot Center.  But there were staffing shortages at each, possibly because large population areas in Florida‘s gulf coast, central region, and Atlantic coast from Fort Myers, to Orlando, to Jacksonville have been devastated by a hurricane that has killed at least 15, left hundreds more missing, thousands more homeless, millions more without power or water. 

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, Hurricane Charley, compared by a woman who survived them both to the Blitz, the German bombings of England in 1940.  Its governor said our worst fears have come true.  One Florida county emergency management director says we believe there is significant loss of life.  I would hope that it would be limited to dozens.  And though the hurricane had left Florida‘s borders by daybreak, a clear picture of the extent of the devastation is not yet possible.  The focus for emergency management officials:  Search, rescue, aid for perhaps six million people who were in the storm‘s path but who did not evacuate.  John Seigenthaler, anchor at NBC NIGHTLY NEWS tonight from Punta Gorda, called the Ground Zero of Hurricane Charley.  And he joins us now. 

John, good evening.

JOHN SEIGENTHALER, NBC NIGHTLY NEWS:  Good evening to you, Keith.  Disney World may be open but this trailer park is definitely closed and many like it throughout the area.  What‘s going on behind me is just an example of maybe two dozen trailer parks in the Punta Gorda area that have been flattened, literally flattened by this hurricane named Charley.  All day long, people have been returning here, trying to pick up the pieces of what‘s left.  The death toll, as we understand it now, stands at about 15.  It could rise tonight. 

There are some of these areas that have been cut off by the damage, and emergency workers are now getting to them.  We expect an update a little later on tonight.  Also, as you say, thousands of people are homeless.  Hundreds of thousands are without power.  And the estimate is that billions of dollars of damage have been done to the state of Florida.  It‘s going to be a while before we figure out just how much. 

President Bush has declared several counties in this state a disaster area.  He‘s expected to come here tomorrow to survey the damage, Keith.  But what strikes me about what‘s happened here is really the personal toll.  Literally the pieces of the lives of all these families is spread out all over the ground in front of us tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  John, in reviewing that, obviously in such an extraordinary, big picture, it‘s hard to grasp every small detail, but invariably something, one detail does leap out as kind of a small definition of the large.  What of all that you have seen today, what has struck with you and what will stay with you of this day?

SEIGENTHALER:  I‘ve gotten a brief glimpse, Keith, as you understand.  You come into the airport and you head to the scene.  But when I got to the airport, I sort of thought, well, you know, there is not that much damage.  There were pieces of a roof on the highway.  When I first came out of the airport, the stoplight didn‘t work, so I knew the power was out.  But then as you drove down the road, you saw an armada of landscaping trucks or electrical power trucks that were headed to try to restore the power and to cut down trees. 

You got a little closer and you saw big billboard signs that have those metal girders on them.  Those metal girders were twisted around.  And as you got then to Ground Zero, where we are today, Punta Gorda, then you see the real devastation and how flattened this area has been.  It did look like a bomb went off.  It did look like a war zone, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  John Seigenthaler of NBC NIGHTLY NEWS in Punta Gorda. 

Great thanks, John.  Good night. 

The individual images on the ground are just that, individual, one airport, one block, one neighborhood.  Viewed from above, a place like Punta Gorda can look like a series of giant lawnmowers have been let loose on it, cutting down everything at will.  Ann Curry of NBC‘s THE TODAY SHOW got exactly that perspective just about dinner time tonight. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN CURRY, THE TODAY SHOW:  Good evening.  From the air, you have a pretty good idea of just what this hurricane did to this hardest hit area of Punta Gorda.  This is in Charlotte county.  You‘re looking at very expensive homes with the roofs just taken off.  The path of destruction is very large.  And, in fact, you can see now right in front of you, these are town homes.  And you can zoom in and we can actually see inside these town homes, what‘s left of them after this huge destruction.  145-mile-per-hour winds were clocked going through.  Obviously, it was a very good idea for these people to be evacuated. 

And over here to the left, you‘re going to be able to see some of these 31 mobile home parks that were hit.  Some of these mobile home parks had about a thousand units in them.  And many of these were smashed to bits.  In fact, emergency workers are still going through these areas, trying to assess the damage and also trying to make sure that everyone has been accounted for.  A lot of work here still to be done.  The work here is just beginning. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Ann Curry above Punta Gorda, Florida, tonight.  Imagine trying to deal with a disaster of this scope.  Not the rebuilding, just the taking care of 15,000 people whose town is essentially gone, to say nothing of the dozens of other towns and cities with similar stories.  As always, the American Red Cross is there first.  Chris Palladino is one of its disaster relief workers.  He got to Punta Gorda this morning.  Mr.  Palladino, good evening. 

CHRIS PALLADINO, AMERICAN RED CROSS:  Good evening.  Thanks for having me. 

OLBERMANN:  How would you characterize the situation on the ground now?

PALLADINO:  I think the greatest challenge, listening to the stories that just came before me, is that the widespread destruction, as bad as Punta Gorda is and as terrible as it is for these 15,000 people, this damage stretches from well south of here all the way across the state.  It‘s going to take days or weeks even for these folks to really recover. 

OLBERMANN:  Are the residents largely still in this catch-22 that we heard of earlier today, that the people with power don‘t have water and the people with water don‘t have power with which to boil the water to make it drinkable?

PALLADINO:  That is a particular challenge here.  I have heard the warnings all day long, that if you do have water, boil it.  Of course, most people have electric stoves here in Florida, not possible to do.  It is a particular challenge. 

We have had 82 shelters open across the state over the last couple of days.  We still have a number of those facilities open, have served over 50,000 meals in the last 24 hours alone.  So we‘re doing everything we can to make sure people have a roof over their head, the shelters, something to eat, something to drink, but it is a big challenge. 

OLBERMANN:  One element today that particularly I think has not been emphasized, on top of everything else, you‘re dealing with heat and humidity after a hurricane?

PALLADINO:  Yes.  It‘s terribly hot and humid today, although having lived in Florida for a number of years myself, I can say for August, this isn‘t as bad as it could be.  Still, without air conditioning, without a roof over your head, trying to clean up, pick some possessions out of the mess in the broiling sun, this is a challenge for folks. 

OLBERMANN:  What are the estimates here?  How long before you think power would be restored?  How much money will be needed in this?  How much of the recovery is emotional?  What‘s the Red Cross doing about that?

PALLADINO:  Estimates are very hard thing to even begin to go at this point.  Of course, power is not our responsibility.  We know we will be working here for the weeks to come, helping these folks recover.  The emotional toll is a whole different story.  We were working with victims of Hurricane Andrew for years after the fact, providing emotional support to them.  We‘re still doing that after a lot of other major disasters across the United States.  And we expect that the emotional toll will be long-ranging here, as well.

OLBERMANN:  How many emotional support care workers do you have in the afflicted areas?  Do you know?

PALLADINO:  Well, we have a few dozen, from my understanding, right now.  But 280 of our nationwide volunteers have already arrived to supplement more than 780 local volunteers.  And there are scores more on the way.

OLBERMANN:  And, Mr. Palladino, the best thing that someone at home who is moved by this situation can do is, I presume, money?

PALLADINO:  Absolutely.  It‘s the most flexible way for people to help.  Today‘s needs might be different from tomorrow‘s, and by making a contribution to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, folks can let us buy whatever‘s needed for the people here today and hundreds of disasters around the country every year.  And they can do that by calling 1-800-HELP-NOW or their local chapter.

OLBERMANN:  Chris Palladino with the Red Cross in Punta Gorda.  Thanks for your time, and as ever, sir, to you and all the other volunteers, thanks for what you‘re doing there.  1-800-HELP-NOW is the number.

The cruelest part of Florida‘s status as the nation‘s hurricane catcher is the cliche really is true:  The counties hit by this storm have about 33 percent more residents who are 65 years and over than the national average.  In just the county in which Punta Gorda sits, Charlotte County, there are 31 trailer parks that rescuers had not have not yet gotten into.  Our correspondent Don Teague is in Punta Gorda with the specific story of Charley‘s most elderly victims. 

Don, good evening. 

DON TEAGUE, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith.  And as you know, many Americans dream of someday retiring and moving to Florida.  Seniors are drawn here by the cost of living and quality of life, but as you can really see now, for thousands of those seniors, those dreams have blown away. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TEAGUE (voice-over):  Sunrise in Charlotte County revealed the kind of devastation few in this popular retirement community could even imagine. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they shook.  It just shook. 

TEAGUE:  But 84-year-old Lillian Clark (ph) didn‘t have to imagine. 

She had seen it before during the Nazi bombings of Britain. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It was just as if the bomb were dropping.  That‘s how it felt.  And I thought well, if I‘m alive tomorrow morning, I‘m alive tomorrow morning.  That‘s all there is to it. 

TEAGUE:  More than two-thirds of this county‘s population is over 65, seniors whose entire lives are wrapped up in tidy houses and manicured mobile home parks.  For too many, all of it is gone. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Terrible.  I didn‘t think it was possible to have this much damage. 

TEAGUE:  It‘s not known how many elderly residents died when Hurricane Charley tore through here, but thousands, like 81-year-old Mary Bendise (ph), were either unable or unwilling to evacuate. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Everybody left for the night.  And I says I don‘t want to come home to a mess. 

TEAGUE:  So Bendise (ph) rode out the storm alone, the only resident who stayed in her Punta Gorda trailer park. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You could feel the house rattle, you know.  It‘s going to take off any time now. 

TEAGUE:  She didn‘t know the homes next to her were demolished until we toll her. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No.

TEAGUE:  The cleanup effort is just beginning in southwest Florida, but for many elderly victims of the storm, rebuilding will be especially difficult. 

BOB CARPENTER, CHARLOTTE COUNTY SHERIFF‘S OFFICE:  The ones that are barely getting by in here and don‘t have insurance, there is going to be a serious problem, and it‘s going to hurt the local economy. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Yes, we stayed. 

TEAGUE:  Still, many seniors have lived through hard times before... 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You‘re tough. 

TEAGUE:  ... and say Hurricane Charley taught them a valuable lesson. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The next time they say there‘s one in the Gulf, I‘m going to take off for the north. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TEAGUE:  Certainly a valuable lesson there, Keith.  As we just heard from the Red Cross, the Red Cross is here, and they are meeting many of the immediate needs of those seniors.  The problem is the long-term needs, rebuilding, and no one‘s even beginning, really, to address what they will need over the months and perhaps years to come to put those lives back together—Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Don, in the short term, is anybody saying how long it‘s going to be before an inventory of those concentrated areas of the elderly, the parks and the other homes, will be completed, when we have an idea if there are more fatalities?

TEAGUE:  It‘s really difficult.  I think everyone here expects there will be some more fatalities, but authorities have been very leery about really giving out numbers and giving any hard answers because there are so many places here that you just can‘t get to yet.  It‘s hard to get to the location we‘re at, and we‘re only about two miles from Interstate 75 which runs through here.  There are power lines still down across the road.  There are places that, without four-wheel drive, you can‘t make it.  And they are talking about taking boats out to areas tomorrow and in the coming days just to make sure they have found everyone. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  Just one confirmed dead thus far in Charlotte County where you are.  Don Teague in Punta Gorda tonight.  Many thanks. 

Let‘s recap the storm so far geographically.  After blistering the coast, Charley moved inland, taking the central Florida community of Orlando by surprise.  Many evacuees had fled to Orlando and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to escape the storm.  And, as we mentioned earlier, Orlando International Airport was closed for a time.  Sections of the roof were torn off, debris scattered along the runways, planes destroyed.  It reopened in part today.  So did the area‘s resorts, as we mentioned, like Disney World. 

And then the storm cut back out to sea over Daytona Beach.  Charley made landfall early this morning for a second time, but not really having had its punch restocked, which had been feared.  In South Carolina, 180,000 heeded the mandatory evacuation order, but by the time Charley had returned to land, winds were down to about 69 miles per hour, and the principal trouble flooding and power outages.  Minutes after making North Carolina, the hurricane was downgraded to the status of a tropical storm. 

A special Saturday edition of COUNTDOWN, beginning with Charley so far.  Up next, tonight‘s number four story, Charley next, and why was the storm‘s intensity and exact path such a surprise?  And later, believe it or not, there is a political aspect to any disaster, including this one.  President Bush‘s plans to travel to Florida, Senator Kerry‘s comments, and the prospect of how long the cleanup takes could influence the presidential election, now 80 days away. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  We continue our special coverage of Hurricane Charley.  Up next, 20-20 hindsight meets 20-60 forecasting.  Did forecasters mess up?  Did Floridians not heed warnings?  Or are hurricanes still ultimately unpredictable?  Plus the latest details as the Northeast braces for what‘s left of the storm.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Hurricane Charley isn‘t one anymore, back to being a tropical storm, which means it was only bad enough to force the declaration of a state of emergency in North Carolina, and only bad enough to throw perhaps half a foot of rain at Washington and New York tonight.  Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, the forecasts, tonight‘s and last night‘s.  First to give us the full picture on what‘s left of the nightmare scenario realized, here is Accuweather meteorologist Bernie Rayno. 

Bernie, good evening. 

BERNIE RAYNO, ACCUWEATHER METEOROLOGIST:  Good evening.  How are you?

OLBERMANN:  Give us a picture of what‘s ahead here, where we still have to go on this storm before we can good night it.

RAYNO:  Well, it‘s about ready to say good night here, Keith.  Certainly this was a very powerful hurricane that slammed into southwest Florida, but it has weakened quite a bit as it continues to move to the north and northeast.  In fact, let‘s go back to me here.  And what we‘re seeing here if you look at the video, notice that there was quite a bit of devastation.  This is what happens when you get a category four hurricane that comes into Florida.  And notice all the damage with the houses.  And when you have wind gusts of 40 miles-per-hour or so, that‘s what happens. 

Now, if we can come back to me here, and you will notice that we can show you the radar here that will be behind me.  But notice this is what happens when you get a category four hurricane.  The damage has been very extensive across Florida.  We‘ll continue to have that damage over the next couple of days.  And we‘ll have to see what the federal government can do, Keith.  Sorry, we‘re having some camera problems.  And we‘ll send it back to you. 

OLBERMANN:  Accuweather‘s Bernie Rayno.  Many thanks. 

The people of the supposed-Ground Zero of the hurricane‘s impact, Punta Gorda, Florida, told reports last night that got the word to evacuate at 3 p.m.  yesterday, but by 3:30, they were told not to bother.  There was no place to go and no way to get there.  By 3:45, the Hurricane Charley had made landfall.  That all what happened yesterday and today fell within the parameters of the men with the barometers is of little comfort in Punta Gorda, which had heard forecast after forecast that the storm would hit the state as much as 100 miles north. 

It‘s also imperative to remember that, 36 hours ago, Charley was a category two storm.  As our correspondent Anne Thompson reports, for meteorologists and residents alike, one of Charley‘s side impacts was that it reminded all of us how fallible hurricane forecasting still is. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNE THOMPSON, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  It was Charley‘s intensity that caught so many people by surprise.  Winds near 140 miles-per-hour, the sea whipped up to heights of 15 feet, a deadly ferocity that took just hours to build.  Friday, 10 a.m., Charley is on track for a largely deserted Tampa. 

ED RAPPAPORT, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER:  Charley is a category two hurricane with winds of about 110 miles-per-hour.  There is still some possibility of it increasing a little bit more. 

THOMPSON:  By 1 o‘clock, Charley is upgraded to a category three and appears to be making a hundred-mile detour. 

STEVE JERVE, WFLA-TV METEOROLOGIST:  Although the hurricane has strengthened, we are looking at more of a southerly landfall now in the Charlotte harbor. 

THOMPSON:  Just an hour later, Charley is a frightening category four. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  A life-threatening situation. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We are getting a lesson firsthand in tropical meteorology. 

THOMPSON:  How did it go from a two to four so fast?  The National Hurricane Center‘s Max Mayfield. 

MAX MAYFIELD, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER:  Most major hurricanes become major hurricanes by going through this rapid intensification process that we simply don‘t understand. 

THOMPSON:  Measuring that intensity has long been the most critical part of hurricane forecasting, because of the vast majority of the damage, some 80 percent, has been done by just 20 percent of the storms. 

BOB RYAN:  Probably everybody in south Florida most remembers Andrew, which interacted with some very warm water and intensified very rapidly in a matter of six to 12 hours. 

THOMPSON:  ... killing 23 and leaving $26 billion in damage.  The science of forecasting has greatly improved, with satellites to measure size and speed, planes that fly into the storms, dropping instrument packages that send back all kinds of data, and a super computer to analyze it all. 

MAYFIELD:  Nature is very, very complex.  We know that we can‘t give that perfect forecast.  And that‘s why that we always provide probabilities on both our track and intensity forecast. 

THOMPSON:  Because the most deadly weapon is still surprise. 

Anne Thompson, NBC News, New York. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And Charley, now moving up the east coast, with rain totals from three to six inches predicted as far north as New England.  There is one more aspect of this storm.  Still ahead of us, the devastation in Florida as a campaign issue.  Not only did Charley hit a swing state, it hit the swing counties in the swing state.  The unseemly but undeniable politics of disaster, coming up. 

And later, what a time to write tabloid headlines for a living as New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey comes out so publicly.  Wow.  Standby.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  This is a special edition of COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Coming up in our second half-hour, the politics of hurricanes.  When Andrew hit Florida in 1992, the first George Bush made sure he didn‘t go there too early.  Instead, he wound up going too late.  A lesson his son may have learned.  Analyzed for us by MSNBC‘s Craig Crawford.

A not so funny thing happened on the way towards dismantling Al Qaeda.  Reports that its remaining headliners have regrouped in Pakistan.  Terror analyst Steve Emerson joins us.  How many cease-fires and how many deals does it take to shut down one radical cleric in Iraq?  The answer may be infinity. 

The clashes with Muqtada al-Sadr‘s army in Najaf continue.  Michael Jackson may think Tom Sneddon is a cold man, but it will be Jacko who will be sitting in the courtroom, sneering Monday as Sneddon testifies.  We‘ll explain. 

And just another cute little kitty cat looking for a home, or in lieu of a home, looking to a piece out of Officer Tex.  A special edition of our nightly segment “Oddball” and the rest of COUNTDOWN straight ahead on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  You could count Abraham Lincoln‘s trips to some of the Civil War battle sites, the ones that were uncomfortably close to the White House.  In February, 1929, president-elect Hoover went to the Everglades to view the after-effects of a hurricane that killed 2,000 but the hurricane had been in September of the previous year.  But, realistically, the presidential trip to the disaster area is an entirely modern concept, most likely begun when Dwight Eisenhower toured six northeastern states devastated by flooding in August, 1955. 

And as our number three story shows, this touring process has yet to be entirely refined.  The politics of Charley tonight.  It appears unseemly at best to talk of the political ramifications of the trip of a president or his challenger to the devastated areas of Florida, but the trips are largely political and can even make or break a candidacy.  More on that shortly with Craig Crawford.  The brothers Bush moved quickly to reassure Gulf Coast residents just two hours after the storm hit the mainland yesterday, President George W. Bush declared the state a major  disaster area to expedite federal aid.  Governor Jeb Bush assessed the aftermath by helicopter earlier today.  They delivered similar messages to residents and voters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JEB BUSH ®, FLORIDA:  My heart goes out to people that right now are homeless, have—are scared, and all I can assure you is that the team assembled here and literally thousands of other people from across the country, both from government and from just people that are going to be organized to act on their hearts to help, will be here. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Tomorrow I‘m going to travel down to Florida to visit with those whose lives have been hurt by Hurricane Charley.  I just want them to know that our federal government is responding quickly.  We have got aid stations in place, FEMA federal officials are on the ground working with state and local officials.

(END VIDEO CLIPL)

OLBERMANN:  Decorum usually requires that in the event of a disaster in an election year, the challenger should not rush to the scene and should express little besides condolence and support for the relief effort and the president‘s role in it.  For a moment, it seemed today as if decorum would hold. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Hurricane Charley has changed people‘s lives within instants.  The work of a lifetime for many people have been blown away and washed away.  I have instructed our people in Florida, all of them involved in the campaign, to try to turn their attention to helping in recovery efforts, in providing whatever support that they can, food or clothing or shelter or otherwise.  And obviously, I support President Bush in the emergency declaration and provision and the governor of the state.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  But Senator Kerry wasn‘t finished.  When asked if he himself would be going to Florida, he managed a thinly veiled dig at Mr.  Bush. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KERRY:  For the moment, our focus is on all of the police and response personnel necessary not being diverted from the visit or anything, but really focusing on the recovery itself, and I think that‘s where the attention ought to be for the time being.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  A visitor like, oh, President Bush.  He has known of the fragile balance between going too soon and too late.  The last time a storm of this magnitude hit Florida in a major election year was August of 1992.  Craig Crawford joins us now, our MSNBC analyst.  Craig, good evening. 

CRAIG CRAWFORD, MSNBC ANALYST:  It‘s hard to know what‘s worse, the hurricane or the politicians that file in afterwards.

OLBERMANN:  Yes, what‘s the rule, what‘s the lesson from 1992 and George Bush I, if a president shows up, he better bring stuff with him?

CRAWFORD:  You can bet they are mindful of this lesson, Keith.  Because in 1992, President Bush, the father, was up for re-election.  Just two or three months later, against Bill Clinton, of course we know he lost.  In that hurricane Andrew, which was end of August, he was disadvantaged because it came right after his convention, so it stole all the news.  So he jumped down this, tried to get some good pictures.  The problem was the feds weren‘t ready with the aid.  And so you had the twin demons of it looking like he had just a photo opportunity for campaign opportunism, along with the fact that local officials were complaining that his administration wasn‘t doing enough to provide aid, plus he had a Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, who was only too willing to give him trouble.

OLBERMANN  Craig, is there a blame rule?  Can we estimate what it is now?  We know Mayor John Lindsey of New York City in 1969 when a blizzard swept through the city and snowplows didn‘t get to the outer boroughs was politically neutered.  Can a governor or a president be affected because, say, a forecast of a hurricane‘s strength and path were off by enough to cause the kind of damage we saw here?  Could they get blamed or that or is it completely a matter of response now?

CRAWFORD:  I think there will be some political fallout for Jeb Bush, Keith, on this.  I covered hurricanes myself in Florida, lived through a lot of them, grew up down there.  It‘s well known that forecasters hedge their bets on these predictions.  Those who make the decisions about where to evacuate, what to do have to take that into account.  It appears to me that what happened here is they focused on Tampa, they didn‘t focus on the other areas in the target zone that the forecasters predicted, 60-mile wide zone, and those areas were not warned in time.  And those people are complaining bitterly about it, including some of the local emergency management officials. 

So I think once the dust settles and the debris is cleared up a bit and people begin to think about what happened, there is going to be some fallout for Jeb Bush, and that is not good for George Bush, because it‘s kind of difficult for him to maintain any distance from his brother, the governor.

OLBERMANN:  And as we mentioned earlier, it‘s not just as if this was the swing state in the election, one of the key swing states.  These are the swing counties, are they not?

CRAWFORD:  Yeah, here you‘ve got the state that delivered the White House to George Bush.  He‘s behind in the polls there.  Outside the margin of error, about six, seven points in the last couple of polls.  Kerry is ahead in Florida.  So he‘s got that problem to think about.  Yeah, I think this is a very difficult proposition for George Bush to get down there and really show that he is doing something about the problem without it looking like he‘s just seeking political advantage.

OLBERMANN:  Lastly, Craig, as to Mr. Kerry, what is the etiquette for him?  Stay out, stay out until the recovery is well under way?

CRAWFORD:  Well, he‘s got the right point.  Because if a challenger runs down there and depletes local resources for his own security, that will be a story.  It will probably be a little bit of a story about George Bush as well.  So he‘s got to get someone to invite him.  That‘s the other thing.  Bill Clinton in 1992 when he went after hurricane Andrew, they made sure the Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, invited him first.  So he needs an invitation.  That provides a little bit of cover.

OLBERMANN:  We‘ll look for that no doubt in the weeks to come.  Craig Crawford of MSNBC and “Congressional Quarterly.”  All politics may be local, but now all events are political.  As ever, Craig, great thanks. 

CRAWFORD:  You bet. 

OLBERMANN:  Before we leave politics, there is tonight a fourth presidential candidate besides Mr. Bush, Senator Kerry, and Mr. Nader.  Barbie.  The renowned doll is running a three-planked platform, its manufacturer announced—the creation of world peace, help for the homeless, taking care of animals.  Barbie has received the nomination of the, quote, “Party of Girls.”  That organization did not support a candidate in 2000, but of course in 1992 and 1996, the party of girls endorsed Bill Clinton.  COUNTDOWN now past our number three story. 

Up next, we thought we had broken down the Osama bin Laden terror network connections.  Has he and his underlings put them back together?  And later, Michael Jackson heads back to court on Monday, but with a twist. 

He will be in the crowd; the district attorney will be in the witness box.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  For the past two years, the same words keep coming up in connection with al Qaeda—weakened, splintered, on the run.  Our number two story tonight adds reconstituted to that list.  “The Washington Post” reported a recent spate of arrests in Pakistan revealed a regeneration of al Qaeda cells centered in that country.  Old operatives teaming up with new recruits pushing ahead with plans to attack the U.S.  There is some evidence that Osama bin Laden is in contact with them but no proof he is directly coordinating attacks.  And officials tell the newspaper it‘s unclear whether or not the new cells even have the capability to pull off a successful attack.  But the close ties and tight communication between recently arrested suspects and seasoned al Qaeda operatives is reported as setting off some alarm bells in the international intelligence community.  Joining us now to assess this reconstitution of al Qaeda in Pakistan, terror expert and MSNBC analyst Steve Emerson.  Steve, good evening.

STEVE EMERSON, MSNBC ANALYST:  Good evening, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  I guess the first question is about the validity of this interpretation.  Is al Qaeda really reconstituted or did we just happen to shine a light in the direction they all scurried when things got uncomfortable elsewhere?

EMERSON:  Well, we really don‘t know.  The question is whether in fact the new arrests are essentially emptying up, emptying and depleting the ranks of al Qaeda or whether they represent the tip of the iceberg, Keith.  The reality is it‘s sort of like peeling the layers of the onion.  Every single time we get to the core, we find other layers out there.  The arrests in Pakistan were great discoveries and great  accomplishments for the intelligence community, but what‘s alarming them is that they missed this for the last few years and that perhaps Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was not as  truthful in his interrogations as he alleged that he was going to be after he was arrested.

OLBERMANN:  Do we still have the wrong mindset about the concept of al Qaeda?  When the president says two-thirds have been killed or captured, does that not underscore what is really an illusion that we are fighting some sort of national army that has a finite number of people, and if we capture them all, that‘s the end of it.

EMERSON:  You know, you heard the expression, there was a book written years ago called “California is a State of Mind.”  Well, al Qaeda is a state of mind.  It‘s not only membership.  Yes, there is membership.  People swear bayad (ph) or loyalty to bin Laden, but now more or less there are chapters around the world, and you don‘t have to be a formal affiliated member in order to be a member.  You can you subscribe to militant Islamic philosophy, carry out a Madrid bombing, and automatically get inducted into the al Qaeda hall of fame.  The reality is today is that al Qaeda has infused an ideology that basically allows anybody to set up their own chapter without having formal recognition.  So this notion of this very decentralized but essentially a command structure is very misleading.  It was misleading in the 1990‘s when U.S. authorities focused on al Qaeda as a card-carrying membership like the Gotti family.

OLBERMANN:  Which brings in the question of contact among these people, if it‘s necessary.  Clearly it‘s necessary to some degree, and if al Qaeda has had a vulnerability in the last few years, it has been communications.  They seem to have underestimated the ability of the west to eavesdrop.  You‘re gathering that that‘s changed to some degree recently?

EMERSON:  Here is where I will give al Qaeda the edge here and an A+ for their operational security.  We have to basically acknowledge the fact that al Qaeda and their other members of the groups have figured out incredible ways to deceive American and western intelligence.  They are using coded language.  They are using the Internet and technology to a degree way beyond anyone ever imagined, and it‘s really confounding the highest technology experts in the United States who track these people for a living.  The National Security Agency should be able to pick up a lot of this, and they do.  However, the al Qaeda members, as far as we can tell from some of the recent encryptions—decrypted files, show that they are very aware of the U.S. willingness to use all types of methods, and so they have constructed their own language that basically deceive and obfuscate their own discussions for attacks.

OLBERMANN:  Send out the cryptologists again, I guess, as we had to do in the Second World War.  I guess one more time.  MSNBC terrorism analyst Steve Emerson, as always, sir, a great thanks for your insight.

EMERSON:  You‘re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  Meantime, the nation inexorably linked to the terror in the public‘s consciousness, if not in fact, Iraq.  It‘s just hours away from its first national conference about its own future.  This will be a different kind of meeting than the one going on again in Najaf where the radical Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr continues for the seventh month to veer back and forth from armed rebellion to negotiation.  Since we‘ve just had negotiation, as correspondent Preston Mendenhall reports, it looks like it‘s once again time for another round of rebellion.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PRESTON MENDENHALL, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Thousands of demonstrators converged on Najaf today, supporters of rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, now holed up in a sacred shrine in the center of the city.  Al-Sadr spoke to supporters, his hand bandaged after 10 days of fighting.  He did not participate in truce talks which appeared to collapse today, raising the specter of more violence.

MOUWAFFAQ AL-RUBAIE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER, IRAQ:  The Iraqi interim government is resuming military clearing operation.

MENDENHALL:  But that operation is led by American forces.  Some 5,000 are in Najaf, with only limited support from newly trained Iraqi troops.  Facing a steady stream of armed supporters joining al-Sadr‘s militia in the vast Imam Ali Mosque as human shields.  Secretary of State(sic) Donald Rumsfeld in Russia today.

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY:  The behavior of al-Sadr and the supporters, his supporters in Najaf have been unlawful and harmful.

MENDENHALL:  Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. forces dropped 500-pound bombs on insurgents overnight in the city of Samarra.  Claiming to kill 50 fighters, a figure disputed by local police.  And in the capital, security was tightened for tomorrow‘s national conference on Iraq‘s future.  Over 1,000 delegates will meet to elect an interim parliament.

(on camera)  Tonight Iraq‘s leaders say they are not ruling out more truce talks in Najaf, keeping their  options open amid continuing challenges to their rule.  Preston Mendenhall, NBC News, Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Number two story complete coming up.  We‘ll show you the fun headline writers are having at the expense of the governor of New Jersey and the Garden State tourism ad with what is now an unfortunate double meaning.  Also tonight, what not to do if you‘re trying to convince a nice family into adopting you as the pet of the week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Ordinarily our nightly swerve through the world‘s news offerings is interrupted twice.  For our tales of the bizarre called “Oddball” and for our roundup of the uncontrolled, unwashed, and the overloved, the celebrity news called “Keeping Tabs.”  Tonight, we altered the format to fit the day‘s news so a combined “Tabs” and “Oddball” joint production turns up as our number one story on THE COUNTDOWN. 

From a car that needs a new home and perhaps a new exorcist to the headline writers of metropolitan New York and New Jersey who secretly wish they would never get a new governor.  The newspapers first.  The resignations and admissions of Governor Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, the creative minds of New York‘s tabloid newspapers are having the kind of fun they perhaps have not since the “New York Post” was able to run its infamous 1980 screamer “Headless Body in Topless Bar.” 

Both the “Post” and the “New York Daily News” had the same cover photo of McGreevey and his purported former love interest Golan Cipel.  The “Post” went with “Predator,” but the “Daily News” hit a home run, noting the conflicting stories of the two men—its caption, “He Said, He Said.”  Online, the Web edition of the paper reflected both Cipel‘s charges of coercion, and the fact that somebody didn‘t think of this headline until after the paper had obviously been printed, “No More Mr. Nice Gay.”  Of course, for bad humor on this topic, perhaps nothing could top McGreevey‘s own tourism commercial for the state he governors.  Still running nationally as of this morning, but now with an entirely new meaning to his first two words.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (voice-over):  Discover a whole new world right in your own backyard.

GOV. JIM MCGREEVEY (D), NEW JERSEY:  Come out; see what‘s new in New Jersey.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  You bet you.  Meantime, bitterness in two other mergers of celebrity and real news.  In a huge switch Monday, it will be Michael Jackson in the gallery on District Attorney Tom Sneddon‘s watch in the jury box.  Yes, it‘s your entertainment dollars in action.  Day 271 of the Michael Jackson investigation.  Sneddon will give evidence at a pretrial hearing in Santa Maria, California, about what he did and did not know when he sought a search warrant for the offices of a private investigator who once worked for Jackson‘s original attorney Mark Geragos.  Jackson will attend.  He will not sing his song  “DS,” his ditty in which it sounds like he is just repeating again and again “Tom Sneddon is a cold man.”

(MUSIC)  Oh, baby Tom Sneddon is a cold man Tom Sneddon is a cold man Tom Sneddon is a cold man Tom Sneddon is a cold man Tom Sneddon is a cold man Tom Sneddon is a cold man Tom Sneddon is a cold man cold man cold man. 

OLBERMANN:  Jackson believes Sneddon has a vendetta against him.  Sneddon could point to that song and say perhaps the same thing about Jackson. 

And then there is Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and an entrepreneur named John Edgell.  Edgell was one of the people sued by Schwarzenegger when the company marketed a bobble head doll of the governor.  Edgell has now announced his retaliation.  He will market new Schwarzenegger products, a new Schwarzenegger girlyman bobble head showing Schwarzenegger in a pink dress, lipstick, and eye makeup, and, quoting him, “a new line of Schwarzenegger urinal cakes and urinal screens often found in men‘s rest rooms.” 

And then there are the kinds of stories you will find in our segment “Oddball” like, say, cats gone wild or a guy up on a tightrope strung between two hot air balloons.  Mike Howard likes to do things like this. He has done a skywalk at 19,000 feet.  This blindfolded walk was 4,000 feet above Bristol, England, plus he had the guide ropes to hold onto.  But more impressive even than Mr. Howard‘s performance was that of the British announcer, one of those guys who hear and you remark to yourself he‘s saying what we‘re all thinking.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And he‘s done it, unbelievable.  What an absolute idiot!  What an absolute and total idiot!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  An entire nation raised on “Monty Python‘s Flying Circus,” what do you expect? 

Finally the premise of COUNTDOWN, of course, the most memorable if not necessarily the most important news story of the night goes last.  Thus we finish with another gift from the vast dark cornucopia that is the Internet.  We‘re not sure how old this is.  But it is from this month.  And it appears an outtake from a pet adoption show on cable somewhere in Texas.  Knowing that and only that, let‘s meet Pinkie.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is Pinkie.  He‘s a male cat, domestic, short hair.  He‘s available for adoption.  He‘s pet of the week at (UNINTELLIGIBLE) County Animal Shelter.  He‘s a very loving cat.  Hang onto his leash. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Pinkie.

UNDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Pinkie, whoa.  Whoa.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We got a wildcat on our hands.  Pinkie, settle down, bud.  Careful.  Careful.  Somebody get a catch pole.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Pinkie.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Set it over there. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m not going to grab him. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He‘s caught up in this.  Ahhh!  Ahhh!  (EXPLETIVE DELETED)  Excuse my language.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Pinkie‘s gone now.  Pinkie needs a new home and some cat tranquilizers, and officer Tex there needs some metal pants.  That‘s COUNTDOWN, thank you  for being part of it.  A special edition of DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT is next here on MSNBC.  Much more on the impact and the future of what is now Tropical Storm Charley.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Thanks for joining us.  Good night and good luck.

END   

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