updated 9/2/2005 10:07:55 AM ET 2005-09-02T14:07:55

Guest: Al Sharpton, Mary Comerio

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  New Orleans, Louisiana, day five.

Chaos takes the upper hand as the future of the city, short term and long, seems to hang in the balance.

Food is running out.  The mayor issues a desperate SOS for help.  The bodies of the dead are now evident.  The Super Dome described as hell.  Hospitals are stormed, shots fired at relief helicopters.

And for the future, once they get the people out, once they get the water out, could it be years before New Orleans can again be fully habitable?  Will the city need to be decontaminated?

And where is the federal government?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  In Baghdad, they dropped, they air-dropped water, food to people.  Why can‘t they do that to their own people in New Orleans?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Or in Gulfport, Mississippi.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We haven‘t eaten in three days.  (INAUDIBLE) drowned in my house.  My house is totally gone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  As if it could get worse, now it is raining again.

This is COUNTDOWN.

As experts began to grimly forecast that it will be months before New Orleans has electricity, and years before much or most of the population will be able to move back in, those staggering facts took a back seat to a more pressing question.  Will New Orleans make it till the morning?

Our fifth story on this special edition of the COUNTDOWN, thousands stranded without food, thousands still stuck inside a sports stadium described as hell.  Some of the mayor‘s estimate of hundreds or thousands dead now beginning to appear.

And an unknown number of residents shooting at and threatening the very people trying to save them.

It is chaos.

Three days now since the killer storm, the city New Orleans descending towards anarchy.  No food, no water for tens of thousands of storm victims, increasingly hungry, desperate, dying, and still waiting to get out.

People taking potshots at rescue helicopters and police officers, telling them, You better come get my family.  Flights to evacuate the sick and dying from the Super Dome suspended until the safety of the pilots could be assured.  Bus evacuations from that same sports arena proceeding, albeit slowly.

The most desperate reports centering in the New Orleans Convention Center, the police chief of the city saying 15,000 people trapped there.

Admit it.  Until today, you had no idea there were as many people awaiting rescue at the Convention Center as were awaiting rescue at the Super Dome.

Eleven-man teams of officers were reportedly beaten back by the crowd.  What few supplies made it in there today had to be dropped by military helicopter from the skies.

That is microcosm of the unfolding tragedy, but its potential impact is national in scope.  Supplies running dry at a small but increasing number of gas stations thousands of miles from the Gulf Coast today, much of that due to panic buying, President Bush asking Americans to buy only what they need.

Gasoline, the last thing the people of New Orleans need to worry about.  For them, the far more immediate goal, just surviving another day, one of our cameras getting inside that Convention Center this morning, capturing pure desperation on the part of thousands of American citizens who feel they have been abandoned, even left for dead.

In the words of the mayor of New Orleans, “This is a desperate SOS.”

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIPS)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They‘re telling everybody that we all right. 

They‘re lying.  (INAUDIBLE), (INAUDIBLE) nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  When daytime, we had all the protection that was here.  But at nighttime came, in the dark with no lights, we didn‘t have no protection at all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My mother suffers from congestive heart failure. 

(INAUDIBLE), I need to get her out of here.  This is ridiculous.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Look how hot he is.  He is not waking up very easy.  I am not—this is not about low income, it‘s not about rich people, poor people.  It is about people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We need help, sir.  We really do.  We need help.  They‘re not doing nothing, they‘re not telling us nothing, they‘re not doing nothing.

Look at all of these old people (INAUDIBLE) without their medication, their wheelchairs.  We need help, sir.  We really need help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Look at these babies.  These babies (INAUDIBLE). 

This is not right.  This is not right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Come on, man, (INAUDIBLE).

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  There are all these old people here, these old people been out here since Monday.  (expletive deleted) we need to get these old people peanut butter and jelly and a glass of water.  (INAUDIBLE), nothing.  Make sure you all show that.  Show all these old people (INAUDIBLE).  Look at that (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Help!  Help!  Help!  Help!  Help!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Help!  Help!  Help!  Help!  Help!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Help!  Help!  Help!  Help!  Help!

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I need help!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We need food.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  The buses are passing us up.  No one is doing anything.  No one knows anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We stranded.  what we going to do?  There ain‘t nothing—ain‘t got no ride.  My car underwater.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘re suffering here with no water.  Here I fought for my country for years, and look at the predicament I‘m in.  I can‘t go back to my own house in New Orleans, it‘s --  I don‘t know where to go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You want the can, get the can.  Try to get yourself some water, friend.  These are (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This is not right.  It‘s just not right.  And they have a couple pregnant girls that‘s full term, walking around.  One girl was having contractions, and they‘re not doing nothing about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They‘re not even giving you water, food.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Nothing about it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Worse than animals.  I mean, in Baghdad, they drop—they air-drop water, food, to people.  Why can‘t they do that to their own people in New Orleans?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  People have been in here since Monday.  Today is Thursday.  They‘ve been telling us, The buses coming, the buses coming.  Don‘t go to the Super Dome.  Come to the Convention Center.  We at the Convention Center.  Nobody not here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘ve been now here now for a couple of days.  And we need help.  We really, truly do.  New Orleans is no more New Orleans.  There‘s a tragedy down here.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Something to reemphasize here.  Those transcendent images and comments were from Americans at the New Orleans Convention Center, the place the government told them to evacuate to.  Those aren‘t looters, loiterers, or troublemakers.  Those are people who followed instructions, and then saw the system break down around them.

Tony Zumbada was the veteran NBC News photojournalist who conducted those interviews, and what he saw was even more extraordinary than what he taped.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TONY ZUMBADA, NBC PHOTOJOURNALIST:  I‘ve got to tell you, I thought I‘d seen it all.  And just when you think you‘ve seen it all, you go into another situation, and you see something horrific.  I‘ve never seen anything in my life like this.  I‘ve never seen any—I just can‘t put it into words, the amount of destruction that‘s in this city, and how these people are coping.

They are just left behind.  There‘s nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C-rations.  Nothing for the last four days.  They were told to go to the Convention Center.  They did.  They‘ve been behaving.  The attitude there is unbelievable, how organized they are, how supportive they are of each other.  They have not started any melees, any riots, nothing.

They just want food and support.  And what I saw there, I‘ve never seen in this country.  And we need to really look at the situation in this Convention Center.  It‘s getting very, very crazy in there and very dangerous.  And somebody needs to come down with a lot of food, a lot of water.  There‘s no hostility there, so they don‘t need to be bringing any guns or anything like that.  They need support.

These people are very desperate.  I saw two gentlemen die in front of me because of dehydration.  I saw a baby near death.  I went back with Harry Connick,, Jr.  He spoke to them and told them he would do anything he can to help them.  They seemed to appreciate that.  He‘s the only person of authority, believe it or not—a musician—to go in there and tell them that things are going to be OK.

I don‘t want to sound negative against anybody or any official.  But according to them and what I saw, they left, and they‘re there on their own.  There‘s no police.  There‘s no authority.

There‘s this one gentleman who took me around and escorted me around. 

He‘s become like the local voice for these folks at the Convention Center.  He came over to me and told me, You need to come over here.  I was doing my little morning cruise around the city.  I hooked up with him, put him in my car.  We went over there with the crew.  Two other journalists were with me.  We went in there.

And you would never, never imagine what you saw in the Convention Center in New Orleans, the bathrooms, the way the bathrooms were.  The stench in there, it was unbelievable.  Dead people around the walls of the Convention Center, laying in the middle of the street in their dying chairs, where they died, right there in their lawn chair.  They were just covered up, in their wheelchair, covered up, laying there for dead.

Babies, two babies dehydrated and died.

I just tell you, I couldn‘t take it.  They would have talked to anybody who would have went in there and could have helped them.  They would have talked to anybody.  It was just like the first time that I felt that the cameras were welcome.  That‘s how desperate they were.  Usually, you know how people are in situations of this nature.  They don‘t want to be videotaped, because they have pride.  They don‘t want to be exposed to all the, I guess, misfortune they‘re having at that moment.

But these folks welcomed me.  They all wanted to talk, they all wanted to take me to where the dead bodies were, where the destruction was, where the lack of food, where the toilets were just over.

It was overwhelming.  I can‘t describe it.  I just don‘t know how to tell you how bad it is and how they need help, yesterday.  Really bad in there.  They‘re being patient.  You got to give them credit.  They‘re sitting there being patient.  They‘re not acting up.

I‘ve seen worse situations where less—where they had more.  I‘ve been in the Hurricane Andrew, and people acted much worse than that.  And they had much support over there.  There‘s no support here.  There‘s no foundation.  There‘s no plan B, plan A.  They‘re just left by themselves in the convention to fend for themselves.

I talked to them, I said, How are you surviving in the last four days?  How are you feeding your baby?  And the one father said, I have to do what I have to do.  I had to go into stores.  I had to steal milk, water, ice, whatever I can get to feed my babies, because they‘re not going to die on me.

They‘re stealing not because they‘re looting.  It‘s a different type of looting that you‘re seeing here.  There were early looters about shoes in the stores.  These people now are about survivors.  These are the families who listened to the authorities, who followed direction, who believed in the government, the local government system, to go and do what they‘re supposed to do, and they followed directions.  They walked miles, floodwaters up to their chest, for a whole day.  And they followed direction.

These are law-abiding citizens who have been left behind.  They did everything they were told.

And I tell you this because I talked to all of them.  I asked them last night as I was coming in, because I have to go out of the city to bring in some support system for our network.

I saw 82 buses.  I counted 82 buses sitting just outside New Orleans.  And I got out.  And one of the guys did not want to come on camera.  And I said, What‘s the problem?  Why are they not letting you in?  It is unsafe.  A couple of the drivers do not want to go in.

That‘s how bad it was.  Some of the drivers have gotten this—I guess somebody was putting out some bad news that it was totally unsafe.  It‘s not unsafe to come in here and help these people.  It‘s unsafe if you‘re looting, like the other people were.  These people are not looting.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Tony Zumbada, the NBC News photojournalist, who recorded the most incredible series of man-on-the-street interviews anybody is ever likely to see.

Even at the Super Dome, where residents are being evacuated now, and are being helped by the National Guard, devastating scenes now of distress, thousands lining up in the heat of the day, desperately trying to get out.

We‘ve seen the Guard there, we‘ve seen the Coast Guard rescuing people from rooftops.  But where is the rest of the help?

Where is the help coming from those people who are still atop the rooves of New Orleans?

We‘ll try to get some answers next.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The story of the cavalry riding over the hill just at the last possible moment is the stuff of Hollywood Westerns from the ‘50‘s.  As we‘ll hear in a moment from Carl Quintanilla, it is still fiction for an untold number of people trapped on the rooftops of New Orleans.

But in a way, it came true outside the Super Dome, just about 4:00 p.m. Central time today.  Not the cavalry, but, as you will see in our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN, the convoy, the convoy of buses.  Once again, we‘ll get out of the way of the eyewitness reporting of the pilot from Helennet (ph) Aviation, J.T. Alpett (ph).

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Someone fainted.  And they‘re carrying people out of here.  Oh, just a miserable scene.  This woman has fainted, visibly unconscious, and being carried into, hopefully, what‘s an area that she could be treated.

Seems like this just continuing to—you can see a skirmish line of National Guard holding the line and trying to keep peace here in a very, very bad situation, trying to make the very best of a very bad situation.

I‘m going to widen out here to show you just how many people are in this area, trying to push towards these front gates to get out of the area where they sought refuge only four days ago.  And they were in line to get in, now they‘re in line to get out.

This is the highway, the east-west highway running on the south side of downtown New Orleans, and what looks to be a large convoy of buses that are coming into the areas.  And I pan in and show you.  I am hoping that these buses—and it goes on for quite a long time.  I‘m going to actually pan up the line and show you bus after bus after bus.  Hopefully, coming to help these people evacuate from the Super Dome area.

These people are absolutely devastated.  This is just one more story And just—well, this scene is just one more story that‘s—that played out throughout the city of just absolute—I can‘t even think of the word.  It‘s just...

We‘ve been flying around the city, myself and Alec Cohen (ph), for the past four days.  And every day, we think we‘ve seen it all, and we just haven‘t.  We come upon something like this, and it‘s just—we‘re awestruck by the more children and babies coming out, as I push in.

It‘s becoming obvious that there‘s more help that needs to be sent here, and to assist.  And to—more water, more food, more personnel.  It‘s just...

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  J.T. Alpett (ph).

Earlier today, a National Guardsman stationed at the other end of that indescribable line at the Super Dome said, quote, “To tell you the truth, I‘d rather be in Iraq.”

But in those images you just saw, did you see anyone pushing? 

Agitated?  Threatening?

The theme throughout this fifth day has been, Where is the help?  Where is the government?  The secretary of homeland security says the government is sending 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to New Orleans, that 2,800 are already there.  But 8,000 Guardsmen from Mississippi and Louisiana, who might have helped, who might have been deployed in the relief efforts, are, in fact, in Iraq, and not in Mississippi and Louisiana.  About 40 percent of all U.S. troops there are drawn from the Guard and Reserves.

While the president claimed this morning, quote, “I don‘t think anybody anticipated a breach of the levees,” there was a “U.S. News and World Report” article detailing just what would happen if they were breached.  It was published exactly six weeks ago.

As we see it, said one Pentagon official, the only thing worse could have been a nuclear explosion or a biological weapon.

And there is that one Guardsman, Sergeant Jason Gefess (ph), who made the remark about how, on the whole, he‘d rather be in Iraq.  He added, quote, “This is mass chaos.  In Iraq, you got your constant danger, but I had something to protect myself, and three meals a day, communications, a plan.  Here, they had no plan.”

The president plans to fly over the scene again tomorrow, meeting with some local officials.  We‘re told the secretary of state has cut short her vacation and made it back to her office just four days after New Orleans was besieged, just a day after she reportedly saw a comedy on Broadway in New York City.

We‘re also told that the speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, told the suburban Chicago newspaper “The Daily Herald” that he does not think New Orleans should be rebuilt.  “It does not make sense to me,” quotes the paper.

What Mr. Hastert would make of the nightmare our correspondent, Carl Quintanilla, found on the rooftops of New Orleans, we hesitate to guess.  Any similarity between the people you meet in his report and the people being chased by aliens in the movie “War of the Worlds” is purely coincidental.  That movie is fiction.

These victims are all too real.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CARL QUINTANILLA, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  At this address in downtown New Orleans, up these pitch-black stairs, a rooftop refuge from mayhem.

(on camera):  Do you believe this is happening in a major American city today?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Absolutely not.

QUINTANILLA:  Ten Americans, three dogs, two tourists from Scotland, are in hiding from people they can‘t even see.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m just -- (INAUDIBLE), I‘m going to die here.  I‘m not going to see anybody.  I‘m sorry, sorry, I‘m—just want out of here.  Just want to go home.

QUINTANILLA:  This isn‘t their house, but they believe it‘s safer than the violence on the streets.  They were squatting at a hotel, were turned away from the buses evacuating guests.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  They weren‘t going to arrange transportation for anyone else.  Hotel guests, that had multiple cars, loaded up their SUVs with luggage and refused to take other people.

QUINTANILLA:  The hotel employee gave them the key to her apartment.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We have this much water left.

QUINTANILLA:  They have four jugs of water, half a bag of dog food, and they‘re angry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How come there‘s not, like, a convoy of concerned citizens up off their butts driving here en masse saying, Come on, get in the car, I‘ll drive you home?

QUINTANILLA (on camera):  It is unbelievable, but what‘s impossible to see from here is that there are rooftop communities exactly like this one across the city, street after street.

(voice-over):  Chuck Coogan has visited other rooftops, and says time is limited.

CHUCK COOGAN:  I‘d say about five days, five days that I can absolutely get my hands on water.  After that, I don‘t know.

QUINTANILLA:  We followed Bonnie Bandursky (ph) to a pay phone that‘s still making calls.

BONNIE BANDURSKY (on phone):  We are holed up in a time share.

QUINTANILLA:  Two minutes to tell her family she‘s alive.

Terry McSweeney (ph), a local handyman, is clearly shaken after swimming for eight hours with his dogs.  He says no boats would pick them up.

TERRY MCSWEENEY:  I just kept apologizing and telling them how stupid I was to put them in this situation.  And I wish I had changed my mind and just left.

QUINTANILLA:  Regrets they cannot erase as they wait for nightfall and hope no one comes knocking.

Carl Quintanilla, NBC News, New Orleans.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  That which put all those people on that rooftop has been pushed from the immediate consciousness by its aftermath.  But tonight, newly seen videotape of Hurricane Katrina itself.

And what it left behind, toxic water, dangerous gas leaks, sewage seeping through the streets, all of it potentially making New Orleans virtually uninhabitable.

But if you‘re thinking we‘re talking about a few weeks or months, think again.  It may be uninhabitable for a decade.

You are watching COUNTDOWN‘s continuing coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Continuing our special coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in a bitter irony, the storm that caused all this has become almost an afterthought.  And yet its destruction will be with the people of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi for literally years.

Two new sets of images to share with you tonight.  Bruce and Missy Sauer (ph) decided to ride Katrina out on Sunday night and Monday morning.  They were in Slidell, 30 miles northeast of downtown New Orleans, a straight run across Lake Pontchartrain over the twin causeways of I-10, I-10, which basically does not exist anymore.

The Sauers took this home video as the water continued to rise in their neighborhood and in their own home.  Other homes were destroyed outright.  The Sauers were lucky.  Slidell is a little higher than sea level, so the flooding got into their cars, into their first floor, but not upstairs, where they live and lived.

And then there were the people who were supposed to be staying for the hurricane for scientific purposes, storm chasers, like Mike Tice (ph).

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘ve been in 14 hurricanes over the past seven years.

Highway 90.

My objective, and the reason that I put myself in these situations, is to show people just how bad and powerful that these events can be.

Well, we‘re in the lobby here of our hotel.  We‘re completely underwater on this first floor here.  There‘s chairs floating by.

Yes, it‘s coming up now.

It was so intense.  The sounds you hear...

The front bumper‘s coming off.

... water sloshing through the stairwells, splashing on things.  You heard the walls crashing in underneath, and they‘d give way.  You heard the wind, the combination of all the sounds.  You can‘t realize how scary it is, how loud it is.

Hurricane Katrina had all the elements.

What happened?

Big wave, big wave, big wave.

(INAUDIBLE).

The intense storm surge, intense winds, extensive damage.  It was just

·         it was devastating, it was terrible.

I feel very lucky to have lived through the storm. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Mike Tice (ph), as he lived through it in Gulfport, Mississippi. 

First, the fury of the storm.  Now the fury of some of the survivors.  As a British correspondent put it tonight, abandoned people in an abandoned city.

Others still stranded, wading through increasingly toxic standing water.  When we had about the day New Orleans is again open for business, is that day in this year or next year or 2007? 

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Continuing our coverage of the chaos in New Orleans and the surrounding area, in a moment, I will be joined for our third story on the COUNTDOWN by the Reverend Al Sharpton.  It is a sensitive aspect of this nightmare, image after image of people taking things from stores, some things some of them simply need to live, some things some of them simply seem to just want. 

And nearly every image shows an African-American.  Looting and race and life and death. 

First, our correspondent Michelle Hofland with the situation in New Orleans right now. 

Good evening, Michelle.

Last night, Mayor Ray Nagin had said that the 1,500 police would go off rescue and he would put them back on the beat vs. looters.  Is the law enforcement presence more palpable tonight? 

MICHELLE HOFLAND, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Actually, it is much more tonight. 

As it—you‘ll notice it is getting dark here, Keith.  This is when the police warned us earlier today that things could begin to get very dicey on the streets of New Orleans.  But I think you can hear overhead some sounds of helicopters.  Over the past hours, it has been incredible.  The skies have literally filled up with helicopters, both relief helicopters and rescue helicopters also over the past couple hours. 

The streets have been transformed into a place where there are convoys of police officers and troops, armed police officers and troops riding up and down the streets.  This is not something that we have seen at all over the past four days.  But the people that are around here wandering in the streets, trying to find some way to get out of town, Keith, they‘re very happy to see this very strong police presence here in New Orleans tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  Our cameraman Tony Zumbado, who went to the Convention Center, said he literally saw people dying in front of him.  And I gather that, unfortunately, that experience was not his exclusively. 

HOFLAND:  No, no.  It has not. 

For the past couple of days, we have had people coming down here and telling us about the horrible sights that they have seen and what they‘ve been experiencing down at the Convention Center.  The Convention Center is the place that so many people were told to go.

After they walked out of their contaminated waters, their floodwaters, they were told, hey, go over there.  Don‘t worry.  You‘re going to get food.  You‘re going to get water and you‘re going to get transportation out of town.  But, for the past four days, they have been waiting patiently to get that help.  But they have not received any at all.  And now there have been children dying and elderly dying.  We saw one woman dying in her wheelchair. 

Others died right before our cameraman‘s eyes.  There‘s a pregnant woman.  She‘s nine months, overdue.  And she has no water, no medical care.  And people are begging for any kind of help that they can get.  Just a short time ago, though, the first water supplies, a helicopter landed and brought at least one helicopter supply to those people over there Keith.   

OLBERMANN:  Some good news at last.  Michelle Hofland at New Orleans, great thanks.  Stay safe. 

No one will defend someone firing shots at emergency personnel.  No one will defend someone looting a store for a big-screen TV.  But, as an ethicist in America‘s heartland, Purdue University, asked rhetorically today, if the only pharmacy nearby were close and it had a drug your mother needed to stay alive, wouldn‘t breaking into the pharmacy be the right thing to do? 

Well, to the pharmacies of New Orleans, add the supermarkets, the water supplies, the shelters, the snack bars. 

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, the noble ingredients of self-preservation mixed together with other motives and creating chaos.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency suspended rescue operations in many areas today, at least for a time, because of gunfire.  The evacuation of patients halted after reports of gunfire at or near helicopters around Charity Hospital. 

Similar stories from the Superdome, where an ambulance service charged with getting the sick and injured out decided it was just too dangerous.  The missing demographic context to the images you‘re seeing, 67 percent of the residents of New Orleans are black.  Nearly 30 percent of the residents live below the poverty line.  Half of all children in Louisiana live in poverty. 

I‘m joined now by the Reverend Al Sharpton, who is going to Houston to try to assist the refugees there. 

Reverend Sharpton, thanks for your time.  Good evening to you.

AL SHARPTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Thank you, Keith.   

OLBERMANN:  I actually heard a commentator this afternoon—it was that Limbaugh—suggest that the issue of class and race in those who were left behind in New Orleans was irrelevant, because, as he put it, those people were not forced to live there and they weren‘t bussed into New Orleans.

And I was thinking, A, this guy is even more clueless than I thought he was, which is saying something.  But, B, there are people who actually believe that.  How do you respond to them?  How do you explain to them what the truth is? 

SHARPTON:  The truth is that these people were born and reared there and that, for some time, the mayor has talked about the infrastructural decay that now has come to haunt us. 

We can rebuild Iraq.  And we are looking at New Orleans, that, in 72 hours later, we‘re happy that we can get water in?  I mean, this is amazing to me.  The same nation that could rise up with the right wing around various issues like Terri Schiavo, and they‘re acting as if we that—when we are dealing with hundreds of thousands of lives, that this is not a drastic issue?

The president stays on vacation, comes back a day late and a dollar short?  I mean, this is an outright—the ones who have been looted are the people that have been a result of structural and institutional neglect in New Orleans that are watching grandmothers and babies die, when we should have prevented the infrastructural decay that collapsed under the weight of this hurricane. 

OLBERMANN:  Our reporter in Biloxi, David Shuster, made an important point last night about the people who didn‘t evacuate, that a lot of people wanted to evacuate, but payday was today.  They couldn‘t borrow the money.  They don‘t have credit.  They live paycheck to paycheck.  This is not a common thing in white America anymore, but it is a common thing in black America, isn‘t it? 

SHARPTON:  Very common to live paycheck to paycheck, to hold on as long as you can because that‘s all you have to live for, is that next payday. 

And the real question is not only those that didn‘t get out.  The question is why has it taken the government so long to get in.  I feel that, if it was in another area, with another economic strata and racial makeup, that President Bush would have run out of Crawford a lot quicker and FEMA would have found its way in a lot sooner. 

OLBERMANN:  I would like to think that most of the people I know in the world, if they saw somebody trying to break into a store to get food in this situation would say, let me help you knock that window out.  But what about the other end of the spectrum, about pure looting?  There‘s videotape of this.  There‘s no denying that it has happened.  What about the guy stealing a TV when there is not going to be any electricity for months?  Why do people loot in a situation like this? 

SHARPTON:  A lot of people are just down downright larcenists and there should be no excuse for that.  Some people are just traumatized. 

You know, you are in an environment where people are watching people die, where people have had to urinate on themselves for two or three days.  The stench, I‘m told, is something that you can‘t even describe.  So, people in that kind of environment are responding in all kinds of insane ways.  It doesn‘t justify TVs being stolen, but clearly to get water and to get food and to get milk for babies, even though it is not refrigerated, certainly, you could call that looting. 

The ones that are looting are people there that work paycheck to paycheck, paid their taxes for an infrastructure that collapsed on them while pharaoh diddled in his suburban Rome in Crawford, Texas. 

OLBERMANN:  As we relocate people to Houston tomorrow, to other localities in Texas, is this a question of who proverbially stole bread to live and who stole a TV or a gun or whatever?  Is this going to be an issue as the living arrangements are made for these groups of American refugees?  Because they‘re going to be out of New Orleans, as we will find out shortly, for a long, long time. 

SHARPTON:  I think those of us that are going, we have a national ministers meeting in Houston on Saturday morning.  Those of us that are going to talk to them are certainly going to tell them, they have to work in a way to rebuild their lives harmoniously. 

But, at the same time, we understand the anger; we understand the frustration.  I have seen footage on your station all day with people out in the streets yelling, help.  I never thought I would see that in America.  I think most Americans never thought that.  And I think that most Americans understand, when you are pushed to those limits, the last thing you need is a lecture.  You first need some help.  Then we can lecture them and try to rebuild their lives and make sure this never happens again. 

OLBERMANN:  Yes.  It looks like the Great Depression or the Dust Bowl scenes from the ‘30s, only on live TV. 

Reverend Al Sharpton, thank you for your insight.  Best of luck in your efforts in Houston tomorrow.

SHARPTON:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  The dozens of different stories from the deteriorating city of New Orleans have again overshadowed the other afflicted areas.  Some inmates in the Harrison County jail in Mississippi, as many as 30 of them, being held for nonviolent offenses have been released to make room for, according to the city spokesperson, looters and the violent there. 

Of course, it is New Orleans that is on its way to becoming the first major metropolitan ghost town in this country since the Civil War.  Why it could be years before it is functionally rebuilt. 

And they just want their families to know they are OK.  We turn our cameras over to survivors of Hurricane Katrina, those who have been cut off from the communications grid of the outside world. 

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  New Orleans, a city below sea level, filled with water.  But what is in the water, some believe, could make the city uninhabitable for years to come.  We will explain when COUNTDOWN continues. 

And this reminder, tomorrow night, a concert for hurricane relief at this hour, featuring performances by artists like Harry Connick Jr., Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, to raise money for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.  Donations will be accepted before, during and after the hour-long special tomorrow here on MSNBC and all of our NBC networks at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 Pacific.

We‘ll be right back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Professional sports is of course utterly irrelevant in New Orleans right now, except as a barometer. 

“The New York Times” reported this morning that, yesterday, the National Basketball Association advised its franchises to prepare for the likelihood that the team in New Orleans will have to play its games elsewhere, possibly for the entire season.  Similarly, the National Football League is discussing if its New Orleans team should play its home games in Baton Rouge, San Antonio, or even Los Angeles. 

These are not rats leaving a sinking ship, nor a sinking city.  They are practical businessmen facing what a lot of people don‘t want to face. 

Our number two on the COUNTDOWN, New Orleans will be closed until further notice.  And that further notice might not come until next year or later. 

We will have call in Mary Comerio.  She is a professor of architecture at Cal Berkeley, author of the book “Disaster Hits Home: New Policy For Urban Housing Recovery.”

Ms. Comerio, thanks for your time tonight. 

MARY COMERIO, AUTHOR, “DISASTER HITS HOME”:  Glad to be with you. 

OLBERMANN:  This is the 21st century.  You can go home a week after heart surgery.  You can reopen the stock market six days after 9/11.  Do you think people are assuming the same kind of thing about New Orleans being up and running in weeks, when months or years is probably more like it? 

COMERIO:  Well, I‘m afraid the shock hasn‘t even begun to wear off yet.  It is going to take months just to assess the damage, and years before New Orleans is inhabitable. 

OLBERMANN:  I guess the wild card as to how many months or how many years is that flood water and its—what is in it, because every day that passes, that becomes not so much water, as some sort of chemical mix that can rot away infrastructure.  And then, when you do pump it out, you‘re pumping it out into the lake and the gulf, where it could ravage the fishing industry. 

Is the question of how and what is done with that water the key thing here? 

COMERIO:  Well, getting rid of that water is obviously the key thing.  And repairing the levee, so that it is even possible to get rid of the water, is really the first order of business.  That‘s a huge engineering question.  It is something that I think we should have been better prepared for. 

People knew about weaknesses in the levees before.  And it should have been part of the emergency plan. 

OLBERMANN:  Let me focus on one just—just one aspect of this relative to the water supply, the taps of water, the ordinary thing that we all take for granted. 

COMERIO:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  In New Orleans right now, this has basically been poisoned, correct?  How soon before it could be conceivably decontaminated and even support a neighborhood or two?

COMERIO:  I think it is going to take several months. 

First of all, the supply system is going to have to be repaired.  There are going to be breaks everywhere, pump failures.  So, getting—just getting the system connected and back together, much less the ability to turn on your tap and have clean water coming out of the tap, is a long, long way away.  And there‘s a big process involved in assessing the damage to those pipe systems and supply systems.  And then decontaminating them and moving back to operations is a long period. 

OLBERMANN:  You studied the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in your book.  And you‘ve seen the outline on this thing.  Give me the best and worst-case scenarios on just 10 percent of the population of New Orleans living back in New Orleans?  What is the soonest?  What‘s the latest? 

COMERIO:  I think the best case is that, within six months, people are starting to return to a few neighborhoods, to a few businesses being open and repairs being made. 

The worst-case scenario is three to five years before anybody finds it inhabitable. 

OLBERMANN:  Do the levees have to be rebuilt differently?  If you go and look in Holland, where they have the same below-sea-level quality to the place, these extraordinary expensive, intricate, sensitive devices to protect against the incoming water inundating the land have been built in the last few years, at extraordinary public cost.  And they‘ve been happy to do it.  Do we have to do that again or forget about New Orleans? 

COMERIO:  Well, we‘re not going to forget about New Orleans.

I think we have too much invested in the city and the community and the economy.  It is a big, huge urban center and it is not going to go away.  So, I think we‘re really going to have to think about how that center is protected and how those levees are rebuilt.  I think we need to have a public commitment to making that possible. 

OLBERMANN:  We have to get used to it.  This—this will be years and not months.  Mary Comerio, author of “Disaster Hits Home,” thanks for helping us break the bad news. 

COMERIO:  Sorry for the bad news. 

OLBERMANN:  Indeed. 

Four days after Katrina came on land, thousands of Gulf Coast residents are still trying to let loved ones in other parts of the country know they are safe.  Well, why not let them try to get the message through on television?  We will do some of that, at least, next. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Finally tonight, a viewer suggested it.  And it‘s so logical, so simple.  No electricity, no phones, no cell phones, no computers, no telegrams out of New Orleans and much of Mississippi and Alabama.  And there we all are, countless news organizations, lacking deodorant, certainly, but with all the videotape imaginable.  Put two and two together. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, thanks to our correspondents and cameramen, we can turn the network over briefly to some of the victims who need to just let somebody know:  I‘m OK. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Emisil Haus (ph).  My brother-in-law‘s name is Byron (ph) in St. Louis, Missouri.  He can contact the rest of my family, because everybody is OK. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Susie Hathaway (ph).  This is for Johnnie (ph) and Jane Hathaway (ph) in Lancaster, California.  I‘m OK.  I‘m OK.  I‘m alive. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Eleanor Campbell (ph).  I have four brothers and a sister.  We‘re doing just fine.  We‘re just standing in line, but everything is great.  We have got a lot to be thankful for today. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Joe Bone (ph).  And I just want to let my daughter know that our family is safe and alive.  And I hope she is, too. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Where is she?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I hope she‘s in Clinton (ph).  I don‘t know for sure. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tom Parker (ph).  I have a son in Louisville, Kentucky and another one in Kentucky.  And I have not been able to get in touch with them.  I just want to let them know that we‘re all right.  Their grandmother and everybody is fine.  And I hope that eases your mind. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Ona Crawford (ph).  And I want to let my son in Chicago, Illinois, Bobby Johnson (ph), to know that we‘re alive. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Thank you. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  And we got our house.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My name is Francine Melvin (ph).  My children live in Syracuse, New York. 

Michelle (ph) and Dan, we‘re doing fine.  Don‘t worry about us.  We will call you as soon as the phones come back up.  Love you. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m Tim Evans (ph).  My wife is Jan Evans (ph).  My loved ones are in Tennessee, in Georgia and some in Hattiesburg, some in Phoenix, Arizona.  Just want to let you all know we are OK. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Dana Smith (ph).  I‘d like to tell my sister and mother in Wenham, Massachusetts—Hamilton, Massachusetts, that myself, the family, made it through OK.  My daughter lost everything, but we‘re fine.  Everyone is fine. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Richard Bonin (ph).  I have got family in Dover, Delaware, and Lowell, Massachusetts.

Hey, guys.  We‘re fine. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  My name is Royce Fletcher (ph).  I‘m looking—I want to just tell my brother, Theron Fletcher (ph), and he‘s in Germany, that everything is fine here, everybody‘s alive. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I‘m Kirk Asbaugh (ph).  In Wichita, Kansas, Juanita Gumpel.  And we‘re all doing fine down here. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I‘m Barbara Mavery (ph) in Biloxi, Mississippi. 

We‘re all alive, fine.  This is for Cathy Holcomb (ph) in South Carolina. 

Have Samantha (ph), Jennifer Hooper (ph), perfectly fine.  We‘re all here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Tom Keaton.  In Caribou, Maine.  My mother, my brothers and sisters up in Maine, just let them know that I‘m OK.  I‘m doing well. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  My daddy...

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  She‘s looking for her daddy. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You‘re looking for your daddy?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  In St. Andrews.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  He was in St. Andrews. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK.  First, I want to you tell us your full name. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It‘s Amanda Taylor (ph) back at school. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  OK.  And what‘s your daddy‘s name?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Earl Koon (ph). 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Earl Koon (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And where is—where—where might he be? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  St. Andrews.  That‘s all we know.  Last place we saw him. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Do you want to say hello to your family in New York and tell them that you made it OK?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Hi, Grandma Terri (ph). 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Think of the cities we just heard.  This is not some regional story. 

We will try keep that option for a poor excuse for a phone call going for as long as the situation demands it.

Let‘s recap briefly the top headlines, the late headlines of the day from New Orleans, buses, some of them at least, leaving for Houston from the Superdome, a report of increased police and National Guard presence downtown tonight, reports at sunset in New Orleans of some helicopters touching down bearing large supplies of water, and a report that France has offered international help to the United States, including water treatment and purification equipment. 

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.  Good night and good luck. 

Our coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues now with “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT” from one of those relocation centers, Houston. 

Good evening, Rita. 

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Good evening, Keith.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

END   

Content and programming copyright 2005 MSNBC.  ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.  Transcription Copyright 2005 Voxant, Inc. ALL RIGHTS  RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.

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