updated 9/16/2005 8:18:44 AM ET 2005-09-16T12:18:44

Guests: Howard Fineman, James Lee Witt

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

The president speaks.  His fourth trip to Mississippi and Louisiana, his first public address from New Orleans.

The former head of FEMA speaks.  He blames the governor of Louisiana, but also talks of a blur of calls he made to Secretary Chertoff and Andrew Card, meaning somebody was not listening in the White House.

The next hurricane, Ophelia, slowest hurricane ever.

And the sharpest young man ever in the Katrina crisis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHARLES EVANS:  We just need some help out here.  It is so pitiful.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Remember him?  Charles, Charles Evans, stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EVANS:  They have several people died out here.  And, you know, I don‘t want to become one of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  What happened to Charles?  Tonight, we have the answer.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

Good evening.

It‘s official.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirming this afternoon what will surprise no one, Katrina was the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history.

They already knew that at FEMA, where things not bad enough there, in midafternoon, someone phoned its headquarters in Baton Rouge and made a bomb threat.

But our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, outside of the victims and their friends and relatives -- 558 now officially dead in Louisiana—the man to whom Katrina has done the most damage again trying to bail his own water before the whole country.  That would be President Bush, and his speech to the nation tonight from New Orleans, which we—he will call—or has called what happened there one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.

We begin our coverage there with correspondent David Shuster.  Good evening, David.

DAVID SHUSTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Keith, good evening.

Aides to the president here in New Orleans say President Bush will unveil a sweeping proposal to rebuild not just New Orleans, but also the entire Gulf Coast region, which was affected by Hurricane Katrina.  By some estimates—and again, the president‘s going to suggest that this tab be picked up by the federal government—by some estimates, the cost will be in excess of $200 billion.

The president in his speech tonight will look not just ahead at the massive undertaking that he is proposing, but he is also going to look back at the last two and a half weeks and say that he wants to know all the facts about the government‘s response.  The president will say, quote, “It was not a normal hurricane, and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it.”

But based on these excerpts alone, the president is already facing a buzz saw of criticism, even from Republicans, who are arguing that four years after 9/11, the nation should be able to rely on more than a, quote, “normal” disaster relief system.

And never mind all the money that‘s been spent the last four years on first responders to try to get them ready for catastrophes just like the one that New Orleans just witnessed.  Before the hurricane, it was the government that was issuing the warnings.  The government, some 36 hours before the storm struck, notified New Orleans, saying, This is a category 5.  It appears to be a direct hit.  And it appears that this will be the catastrophe that everybody has feared.

But tonight, as the president tries to frame this situation on his terms, there is some news from New Orleans tonight.  Behind me, for example, you can see some of the traffic lights.  They are working for the first time in 16 days.  In addition, with power, electricity, and some sewage systems now running to parts of downtown and the French Quarter, the mayor of New Orleans says that he will try to reopen this part of the city as early as Monday.

They are not so lucky about 30 miles to the east in St. Bernard‘s Parish.  That is where some 80,000 residents lived before the storm.  Officials today say it will be at least until next summer before any of those residents can return.  Officials also say that thousands of the residents there will never be able to return, because of the environmental damage that was caused when oil refineries were broken open and gasoline and oil polluted much of that coast, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Correspondent David Shuster in New Orleans.  As always, sir, great work, great thanks.

A remarkable series of events, or rather a lack of them, bringing President Bush to this moment of crisis for the nation and for his presidency, and clearly, for his legacy as well.

Our chief Washington correspondent, Norah O‘Donnell, joins us now from Washington with more on that.  Good evening, Norah.

NORAH O‘DONNELL, MSNBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening.

And tonight, White House officials say the president tonight will chart a path forward.  And he will accept some responsibility, take some blame for what went wrong.  The reason in part for this speech is because the president‘s approval ratings have reached an all-time low, and advisers say the president understands that there must now be accountability.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL (voice-over):  In his fourth visit to the hurricane zone, the president began the political road to recovery by once again planning to take some of the blame.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I take responsibility.

O‘DONNELL:  Under fire for the administration‘s slow response to Katrina, Mr. Bush is struggling to shore up his political standing.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, MSNBC PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN:  Presidents in the past, when they take personal responsibility for a crisis, it almost always helps them.

O‘DONNELL:  At times, the president has appeared out of touch, flying over the destruction while tens of thousands were left stranded below.

BUSH:  FEMA‘s moving supplies and equipment into the hardest-hit areas.

O‘DONNELL:  But the first days of the disaster amounted to a split-screen America.

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?

O‘DONNELL:  Then, the president resisted finding fault with federal or state officials.

BUSH:  I think one of the things that people want us to do here is to play a blame game.  I just...

O‘DONNELL:  Stunningly, those were almost the exact same words his father used after Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, 1992)

GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I would simply say this.  First place, I‘m not going to participate in the blame game.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O‘DONNELL:  President Bush has tried to avoid the mistakes of his father, who, 13 years ago, was slammed for his administration‘s lackluster response to Hurricane Andrew.  Back then, the elder Bush named his transportation secretary, Andrew Card, as disaster czar.

ANDREW CARD, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF:  There should be no finger pointing.  We just have to address the concerns that these people have.

O‘DONNELL:  It helped, and polls showed 64 percent backed the actions of the former president.  But now, with Card as the president‘s chief of staff, the reaction has been less supportive.  Only 48 percent approve of the current president‘s handling of the crisis.

BESCHLOSS:  If the president doesn‘t turn it around, he‘s likely to be increasingly a lame-duck president, unable to do the kind of audacious things that he would like to do in this second term.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

O‘DONNELL:  And tomorrow, Keith, the president will speak at the National Cathedral in a prayer service for the storm victims.  Remember, it‘s something he did after the September 11 attacks, and it‘s something that Republicans have said the president should have done days ago, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Norah O‘Donnell, MSNBC‘s chief Washington correspondent. 

Great thanks.

O‘DONNELL:  You‘re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  Fifty-five minutes or so ahead of the president‘s speech, time to bring in our Bushologist-in-chief, “Newsweek” magazine senior political correspondent Howard Fineman.

Good evening, Howard.

HOWARD FINEMAN, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, “NEWSWEEK” MAGAZINE: 

Hi, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Can a speech like this one produce, at this late hour, a bullhorn-at-ground zero moment, 16 days after ground zero?  Or has that ship already sailed?

FINEMAN:  No, it can‘t produce a bullhorn moment for a few reasons.  First of all, this is scripted.  That was spontaneous, and that‘s what made it so striking and so memorable, George Bush atop the still, you know, steaming piles of rubble there in New York.  So it‘s not spontaneous.  As you say, it‘s 16 days after the fact.

Also, at that point, we‘d been attacked by an enemy, unknown at the time, but an enemy.  And George Bush was someone the whole country was rooting for because he was in the new role of commander in chief and leader of us in wartime.  Everybody was rooting for him and cheering for him.

I think people would like him to do well tonight, but it‘s too late for the bullhorn moment.  And also, Republicans, both publicly and privately, have expressed great alarm at his lack of leadership so far.

OLBERMANN:  Then what is the aim tonight?  What can he realistically get out of this?  And is it enough for his reputation and that of his administration?

FINEMAN:  Well, he‘s not going for reputation right now.  He is going for ability to function and lead.  What the Republican strategists I talked to today said he needs to do is reframe things.  That‘s a favorite strategist‘s word, reframe things.

He‘s got to be two characters, I think.  He‘s got to be Clinton-like, in the sense he has to feel people‘s pain.  He has to show that he understands on a ground level, the way he didn‘t the other week, as Norah pointed out, that he knows the reality of life on the Gulf Coast right now.

And then he‘s also got to be like that character from the movie “Apollo 13,” that can-do NASA engineer who dumped all the parts out on the table and said, Come up with a solution.  Failure is not an option.

Bottom line, he‘s got to be the leader that he sometimes has been in the past and that the American people liked.

OLBERMANN:  The “Apollo 13” engineers used duct tape.  I just wanted to bring that up, now that you mentioned that.

What little we have heard, the releases we‘ve heard about the content tonight, no Gulf czar.  Obviously plenty of money to rebuild.  He‘s putting it in world history terms.  But what does he do?  What does he say about those NBC News-“Wall Street Journal” poll numbers yesterday that suggested that the top three places that people would like to find that money, the overwhelming first choice is, cut back on Iraq.  The second one is, do not cut taxes.  The third is, do not stop the estate tax.

If they had suggested lowering the budget for homeland security, that would have been the complete set that‘s on that panel right there, three of the four things Mr. Bush lives for right now.  How does he deal with that?  How does he deal with the politicians who would agree with that, or would simply agree with folks like John McCain, that wherever the money comes from, it has to come from money that‘s already there?

FINEMAN:  Yes, well, this is going to be the largely unspoken part of

this speech tonight.  And it is a conversation going all around, all along

all around the country.  How do we rebuild two Gulfs?  How do we rebuild Iraq and the Persian Gulf, and how do we rebuild the Gulf Coast?

We have a lot of money to spend, but not unlimitedly.  The problem is going to be, down in the Gulf Coast, when they have to choose among projects, and they‘re going to be told, you know, There‘s not enough money for everything, and then the locals in the red states are going to say, Wait a minute, how can there not—how can there be money to keep the war going in Iraq, to attempt to continually rebuild Baghdad, when we can‘t have that bridge we need, or the new police station or fire station or school?

That‘s going to be the political reality over the next year or two that‘s quite dangerous to Republicans and to George Bush‘s coalition, what‘s left of it here in Washington.

OLBERMANN:  Last question, Mr. Bush goes to Pascagoula in Mississippi late this afternoon, hours before this critical speech.  It‘s his other part of this trip.  And he goes to greet the president of the company and the workers at the Chevron Oil refinery.  With all of the controversy over big oil and this administration, four and a half years, he does this today?

Howard, who is his principal advance man on the trip, Howard Dean?  Is this not—did he just not hand a whole section of the good publicity that might come tonight back over this gesture?

FINEMAN:  Quite possibly, although in that part of the world, oil is big.  And if he‘s trying to tell the locals that he‘s on their side and he wants to rebuild the economic infrastructure, it‘s not a bad move.

But I agree to you, on a national level, when people are outraged at the price of gasoline, the last thing they want to see him doing is standing in front of a Chevron sign.

So, you know, Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, a Republican, as a former Republican national chairman, very influential in the whole rebuilding process.  If there‘s no federal czar announced tonight, I think Haley Barbour is the reason why, because people like Haley Barbour and, indeed, the Democrats in Louisiana don‘t want a federal czar.  They want the federal money, but they want local control of it.

Haley Barbour‘s actually a very key player here, and probably the reason why Bush went to that particular site.

OLBERMANN:  Well, I hope the president got the tanks refilled on the entire motorcade.  Howard Fineman of “Newsweek,” helping us preview the president‘s speech coming up here on the top of the hour on MSNBC.  Thank you, Howard.

FINEMAN:  You‘re welcome.

OLBERMANN:  Later, we‘ll get the analysis of Chris Matthews.

And also tonight, Mike Brown speaks.  But the former FEMA chief‘s explanation of what failed in the Katrina response only seems to place more questions at the feet of his old bosses.

And with the big, big news problems in New Orleans, residents of Mississippi may be feeling like they‘ve been forgotten.  We‘ll get a status report on where things stand in the Magnolia State.

You are watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  It would be bad enough to be living in a state where a third or more of the homes have been damaged by a hurricane.  But then to see the nation‘s focus fixate almost entirely on the much more dramatic, much more fluid, literally, situation in an adjoining state, must add a layer of defeat to the process.

Now, our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, such it is, perhaps, in Mississippi.  Katrina made landfall there.  But tonight, the president speaks of New Orleans, and in New Orleans, and just now, FEMA is opening up shop in Biloxi.

Our correspondent there is Ron Mott.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RON MOTT, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  For more than two weeks, Katrina news coverage has focused on New Orleans.  But across the state line, Mississippi is a mess.  Fifty-two of its 82 counties have been declared disaster areas.  Cities like Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Long Beach, Gulfport, and Biloxi, devastated.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  It‘s downtown Biloxi here.

MOTT:  Much of Mississippi is gone, and now, many here argue, forgotten.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We definitely need aid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  There‘s nowhere to live.

MOTT:  While federal rescue and recovery teams have been pouring into Louisiana and FEMA gives updates from Baton Rouge every day, many Mississippians say the agency‘s hard to find.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  As far as FEMA and all, they‘re—they‘re not here.

MOTT (on camera):  Just this afternoon, FEMA opened an office in West Biloxi, the sixth office in the state.  But for people here on the east side of town, so many of whom have no transportation, that‘s still too far away.

(voice-over):  There are other frustrations.  Manell Antoine (ph), an 1970s Chicago Bears star, lives in a tent these days, his house totaled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The lines are busy.  I‘ve talked to computers, I‘ve left messages.  And I haven‘t heard anything.

MOTT:  Meanwhile, Norman Bluler (ph) cleans out his house while trying to put his life back together, virtually alone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  This is ground zero, right here where we‘re at. 

And it seems like all the help is where we can‘t reach it.

MOTT:  Dana Rowell‘s (ph) house is damaged, but her insurance company says, not as much as she thinks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I was told I would only get $7,000.  I have $75,000 worth of insurance.

MOTT:  Disputes like that will lead to arguments, even litigation, in the weeks and months ahead.

Ron Mott, NBC News, Biloxi, Mississippi.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  And something else to note tonight from Mississippi.  In the aftermath of the hurricane, if you were running the electric company that served much of the southern part of the state, would you deploy all of your repair crews to work on getting power back generally, or would you have half of them do that, and half of them work 16 hours to restore the facility that kept the main gas pipeline from Texas to the Northeast running?

Ratchet it up a bit.  How about if you‘d gotten two voicemails from the vice president‘s office telling you how important that pipeline was, and how you would be preventing a national emergency?

That‘s what reportedly faced the South Mississippi Electric Power Association on Tuesday, August 30, and Wednesday, August 31.  The Colonial pipeline, running from Texas through Louisiana and Mississippi, supplies the Northeast with fuel.  Vice President Cheney‘s office, according to the power association‘s general manager, placed two calls in the days following the storm demanding that restoration of electricity for the Colonial become the top priority, a similar call placed by the Department of Energy to Mississippi‘s public service commissioner.

Crews working on getting the juice back on in an area that included two hospitals and a number of water systems were redeployed.  Though the decision also reportedly risked knocking out electricity to the only operational hospital at the time, it was made anyway.  The pipeline was back in business in 16 hours.  Two days later, so were the hospitals.  There has been no comment from the vice president‘s office.

No shortage of comments about who is to blame for the botched government response to Katrina.  Now Michael Brown adds his.

We will be joined by another former head of FEMA, James Lee Witt.

And in the height of the crisis, we all remember the eloquence and plight of Charles Evans.  What happened to this 9-year-old symbol of the crisis at the New Orleans Convention Center?  We will find out, next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  The presidential message to the nation on Hurricane Katrina, in the context of the messages of his former FEMA director, who says now that he tried to send to Mr. Bush two weeks ago.  Did Mike Brown make matters worse for the president?

Brown details a host of warnings to his bosses.  So why was the response still so botched?

Someone with a strong opinion about that response, little Charles Evans, after his emotional plea to the country from the Convention Center.  What happened to him?

And the hurricane that won‘t go away.  Ophelia still causing problems for people living along the coast of North Carolina.  A live report here on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Michael D. Brown has gone from former commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association to former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  He‘s also gone from, “Brownie, you‘re doing a heck of a job,” to, “I was beginning to realize things were going to hell in a handbasket.”

Our third story on the COUNTDOWN, there is no formal public exit interview when you leave FEMA.  Our upcoming guest, himself its former director, will attest to that.  But Mr. Brown gave one anyway.  He talked to “The New York Times.”  He may or may not have helped himself, nor his former boss.  Well, he blamed local authorities, saying that FEMA relies on state resources, but Louisiana was woefully unprepared, saying that even after the hurricane was history, the state would never tell FEMA specifically what was needed to help.

While he said all that, he also said he urgently asked for immediate help from the Department of Homeland Security and the White House.  He said he made a, quote, “blur of calls,” to Secretary Chertoff and chief of staff Card and deputy chief of staff Hagen.  In one of them, on the night of Monday, August 29, he says he conveyed that, quote, “I was beginning to realize things were going to hell in a handbasket in New Orleans.”

The Louisiana governor‘s office says, for its part, FEMA‘s demands for itemized requests frustrated the relief efforts.  As the state communications director described it, quote, “It was like walking into an emergency room, bleeding profusely, and being expected to instruct the doctors how to treat you.”

And the Homeland Security Department is getting in on the blame game, rebutting yesterday‘s report that Secretary Chertoff did not make the necessary announcements that would have freed up federal aid until 36 hours after the hurricane hit.  According to FEMA, that announcement had been made, two days before the hurricane made land, by the president.  But instead of putting then-FEMA director Brown in charge, the president had designated a lower-level official, William Lokey (ph), to head the federal efforts.

As to why Chertoff did not name Brown as the principal federal official with authority over Lokey and everybody else until 36 hours after the hurricane, a Homeland Security spokesman told Reuters News Service there was no need to do that, because, quote, “Everyone knew their roles and responsibilities,” which begs the question, if everyone knew what they were supposed to be doing, how come they didn‘t do it?

To try and help us sort through all these claims and blames, I‘m joined by James Lee Witt, the former head of FEMA under President Clinton, currently advising Louisiana‘s Governor Kathleen Blanco.  Mr. Witt‘s firm is also currently lobbying Congress on behalf of Allstate Insurance to create a fund that would ease insurers‘ burdens from disaster claims.

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.

JAMES LEE WITT, FORMER DIRECTOR, FEMA:  You‘re welcome, Keith.

OLBERMANN:  Let‘s start with this extraordinary interview of Mr. Brown with “The New York Times,” pointing the finger at the state for not having the resources for FEMA to use.  Is that really the principal element of what went wrong here? 

WITT:  Well, Keith, I don‘t know what went wrong.  I haven‘t had time to look into it.  And I‘m sure the governor is going to ask the full review of everything to see what did go wrong and how to correct it.  So, I haven‘t really had time to look at that. 

OLBERMANN:  The argument seems to be about how specific the state was in its requests to FEMA and to the federal government in general.  We know the governor told the president on Monday, we need everything you‘ve got.  That would seem to be fairly all-inclusive, admittedly not very specific. 

But post-hurricane, with water up to your neck, after the disaster is hit, would seem to be a bad time for paperwork.  Is it routine for, in the history of FEMA, at least the FEMA that you knew, for the bureaucracy to be the primary thing after the urgency of the crisis has hit? 

WITT:  No, Keith.  Not at all.  When I was there—and I was—

President Clinton elevated me to Cabinet level and reported directly to him.  I think that‘s extremely important. 

And I also—what we tried to do, we did video conference calls with all the affected states that we thought were going to be affected way early before a hurricane came ashore.  And I personally called governors and said, look, this is what we‘re going to put in place.  And please tell us if there‘s anything else that we need to do, if there‘s any areas that you have a concern in, that we will make sure we support that in predeployment. 

And that‘s what—we tried to make sure that we were there as a resource for the state government, not there to take over the response, but to meet that critical need that they need before and after an event. 

OLBERMANN:  If, during any of the events for which you were the head of FEMA, if during any of these, a governor of an afflicted state had said we need everything you‘ve got, would there have been a long checklist of things that that governor would have then had to answer?  Or would the message have been pretty straightforward and clear; everything you got means everything you got?

WITT:  Well, I think it is pretty clear. 

You know, when a governor says that, that means they need all the full resources of the federal government behind them to help them.  And, you know, then it is important that FEMA or whoever is working with them follow up and to make sure that those resources are there?

OLBERMANN:  How do we keep—obviously, bureaucracy at least partially beat common sense and the goodwill of people involved in this, this time.  How do we keep it from happening next time? 

WITT:  Well, I think it is really important, Keith, that the president and Congress look at FEMA as an organization, what it used to be and what it is today. 

I think it is important that they put it back as an independent agency with its role and responsibility to meet that need, not just during an event, Keith, but, also, do the planning, the preparedness and the training, with the state and local governments as a partner, because FEMA responded well to 9/11.  And then, when Homeland Security was created, they took a lot of FEMA‘s leadership and a lot of FEMA‘s people and programs and put it under Homeland Security. 

And I have testified to Congress about this before about a year ago, that I had big concerns about this.  And I think it has minimized FEMA‘s effectiveness, particularly working out of the 10 regions with the state and local government.  And I just think it needs to be put back where it can be responsive. 

OLBERMANN:  I guess my next question is more of a—an emotional response from you, as somebody who has been in the chair, rather than something, I guess, specifically about this crosstalk that we seem to be getting about who was responsible at one point. 

But, you know, at first, there were government leaks that blamed Mr.  Brown and FEMA.  They got blamed.  Then there were government leaks that blamed Mr. Chertoff and Homeland Security.  They got blamed.  Today, we have—obviously, it‘s not a government leak.  It‘s a statement from Homeland Security responding to the one about Chertoff yesterday. 

It says, in essence, well, the president appointed Mr. Loki (ph) to run all this on August 27.  To some large degree, obviously, the public is wandering wondering if anybody knows what they‘re doing in times of crisis.  Isn‘t the internal backbiting at this point, no matter how natural protecting your own territory might be, isn‘t that just going to increase the suspicion that the government is not very useful in times of crisis? 

WITT:  Yes.  I think the finger-pointing and the blame game needs to stop.  I think it is important.  And I think the president said that.  And the Governor Blanco said that. 

I think it needs to stop and I think we need to get on about our

business of not only responding to the victims‘ needs, but also responding

with each other as a partner to make sure that we meet that commitment that

we have all made, that the president has made and that the governor has

made, and because these local parishes down here in—that‘s been affected

and I know Mississippi and Alabama as well—they need the full force of the federal government, as well as state and local. 

So, it is important now.  Let this rest.  Let‘s get about our work and get it done.  And I think that‘s what the governor, I know, in Louisiana wants. 

OLBERMANN:  Last question, something that happened today that must have been very disturbing to you, when you heard about it, this bomb threat at the FEMA operation in Baton Rouge. 

Whatever might have happened at a bureaucratic level in Washington, whatever might have happened in the initial days...

WITT:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  I‘m sure that, having seen the FEMA people at work, the folks on the ground there with you, that you must be just as proud of them now as you were when you were the head of that organization. 

WITT:  Well, that‘s something that you have to deal with.  You know, we dealt with that in the Oklahoma City bombing.  We were right in the middle of that response.  We had two bomb threats that had to evacuate our search-and-rescue teams and the people out of the way trying to get into—to see if anyone was alive. 

And, today, that happened at the disaster field office.  And all it does is disrupt and—but you have to take precaution and you have to heed the warnings and do what is necessary. 

OLBERMANN:  But your feeling in dealing with and seeing those people on the ground, the FEMA workers there?  Right now, it‘s—they‘re doing 100 percent of what they could be doing? 

WITT:  They are.  They‘re working extremely hard. 

And I have to say, the FEMA employees, the career employees and the reservists, care deeply about what they do.  And very proud of them.  I‘m extremely proud to have been associated with them. 

The former director of FEMA, the current adviser to Louisiana Governor Blanco, James Lee Witt, great thanks for your time tonight, sir.

WITT:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  As the city slowly drains, teams of National Guardsmen are using boats to navigate the flooded out of the streets of New Orleans, still searching for human victims of the hurricane. 

And one such group today instead found a four-legged survivor.  They spent half-an-hour trying to rescue it.  Doesn‘t seem like a lot of news in this, but their efforts, documented from overhead by Helinet Aviation helicopter pilot Rich Jackson (ph) telling indeed. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  One of our National Guard emergency response teams that are working the area has found someone‘s pet.  A nice touch of humanity demonstrated by our National Guard troops down below. 

They have found someone‘s pet, gone to the extra steps.  And they have taken the extra time to make sure this dog has got some fresh, clean water.  They appear to have broken up some MREs.  They‘re going to try to provide this dog some food. 

Obviously, the animals at this time and point are pretty concerned—or, rather, frightened, and are very uncertain of the conditions that they‘ve been living in. 

So, they‘re suing some excellent improvisation with available materials around them.  They‘re making an excellent command decision to do what they can to get control of the dog. 

Not as tense as diffusing a bomb, not as demanding as air-to-air—as actual combat.  But these gentlemen displayed a great effort to save this animal, not get themselves injured.  Outstanding effort by them, displaying the kind of humanity and patience there.  Outstanding job.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

OLBERMANN:  Rich Jackson reporting there.

Lastly, if you saw him, you will never forget it, the most articulate kid, maybe the most articulate person of the hundreds and thousands stranded two weeks ago at the New Orleans Convention Center.  Nine years old and not frightened, nor furious, nor unfocused, Charles.  Charles merely became a spokesman for abandoned people in an abandoned city. 

What happened to him? 

Our correspondent Campbell Brown has found out. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We just need some help out here.  It is so pitiful. 

CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  We first met 9-year-old Charles Evans (ph) at the New Orleans Convention Center, where thousands were stranded for days after Katrina with no food or water. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  They have several people who died out here.  And, you know, I don‘t want to become one of them. 

BROWN:  He showed us the piece of sidewalk he shared with his cousins and his diabetic great grandmother, Ophelia (ph), who has raised him since birth. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  As it is in heaven. 

BROWN:  It was later that day that help finally came. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And we got on a helicopter.  And the helicopter from there brought us to the airport.  And we stayed there for like four hours. 

BROWN:  They flew to Texas and connected with family members, Kevin (ph) and Valetta Morrow (ph), who already have six kids of their own.  They‘re trying to help Charles find his childhood.  But the trip out of New Orleans was traumatic. 

His great aunt Alma (ph), who was traveling with Charles and Ophelia, was sick and weak.  She died just after they arrived in Texas. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  She was very ill, yes.  And they‘re going to have her funeral Saturday.  I will always remember her sweet and gentle face. 

BROWN:  Charles has written an obituary. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We saw him in there last night.  He was writing her obituary.  And we didn‘t even ask him. 

BROWN:  FEMA officials are now trying to help Charles and Ophelia with permanent housing. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Why you got to move back to New Orleans?  You‘re going backwards.  You don‘t need to go backwards.  You need to walk forward.

BROWN:  Moving forward, but hopefully not too fast to miss growing up. 

Campbell Brown, NBC News, Dallas. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

OLBERMANN:  Meantime tonight, Hurricane Ophelia, packing a punch, wind and rain.  But, on motion, she is just not going anywhere.  We will get a live report from North Carolina as Hurricane Ophelia crawls out to sea next here on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  At the top of the hour, President Bush set to address the nation from New Orleans.  What does he need to do to win back the nation‘s confidence, besides visiting more stricken oil refineries?  We will go live to North Carolina for a look at the effects of Hurricane Ophelia when COUNTDOWN continues after this. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Theoretically, if you somehow had a choice between a super-violent, super-fast hurricane and a rain-laden, super-slow hurricane, logic would tell you to take the latter.  Logic, of course, does not take into consideration your point of view if the rain-laden, super-slow hurricane happened to be parked over your head, moving, if that‘s the right word for it, at three miles an hour.  Hurricane Ophelia is in no hurry. 

And our correspondent Mark Potter is in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. 

Good evening, Mark.

MARK POTTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Good evening, Keith. 

Hurricane Ophelia is indeed crawling, as you said.  But the good news is that it is finally crawling away from the Outer Banks.  And, as a result, all hurricane warnings for North Carolina have now been lifted. 

Now, here in Wrightsville Beach, which was hit yesterday by the hurricane, there is hardly any evidence today that there was a hurricane.  About all we could find is this partially sunken sailboat and this dock behind me.  That‘s really about it. 

Now, around the state, particularly in the coastal areas, there is a lot more.  We‘re hearing that a lot of roads have been flooded and some bridges have been washed out.  Some homes and businesses also have been damaged.  But, in the grand scheme, they are relatively few.  Sadly, one traffic death indeed has now been attributed to the storm. 

Now, during the storm, at the height of the storm, some 200,000 people were reported to be without power.  But, already, state officials say that about three-quarters of them—in fact, more than three-quarters have actually had their power restored.  In the morning, assessment teams from the state will be going out to get a better handle on all the damage.  But, right now, at first glance, it appears to be relatively minimal, in part because the worst of the storm, the rain and the wind, was offshore over the ocean to the east and to the north of the eye, which actually never made an official landfall in North Carolina, as that storm just crawled along Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  At least we hope it is crawling in the right direction, finally.

Mark Potter in Wrightsville Beach for us, thanks for the report. 

Back to Katrina, the president vowing he cannot imagine a United States without a New Orleans and expressing sympathies for the displaced, that ahead. 

But, first, time for COUNTDOWN‘s list of today‘s three Katrina-related nominees for the title of worst person in the world. 

Nominated at the bronze level, Renee Holcombe, the now ex-associate vice president for student services at Greenville Technical College in South Carolina.  In two separate briefings to her staff of about 40 last week, she explained, the college would be helping the city out with its New Orleans evacuees by sending some of its buses to pick up the children.  She didn‘t call them children, though.  She referred to them as “yard apes.”  Ms. Holcombe has resigned.  If we‘re lucky, she‘s resigned from the country. 

Also, the BMS Catastrophe Company of Fort Worth, Texas.  It said it was willing to pay $7.50 an hour for 500 people to help with disaster relief cleanup in New Orleans for at least six weeks.  Calila Dalton (ph) and Chris Tucker (ph) from Lawrence, Kansas, were moved.  They were on the bus to New Orleans when they found out they were being diverted to Biloxi, where their disaster relief work turned out to be cleaning up the Beau Rivage Casino. 

When they complained, they were told they could quit, but there would be no transportation home.  And, by the way, they risked being shot by the National Guard on the way out, a well named corporation, BMS Catastrophe. 

The winner, John  Gentry, the president of Positronic Industries of Mount Vernon, Missouri.  The Saturday before the hurricane hit, one of Mr.  Gentry‘s employees, Barbara Roberts (ph), went to her daughter‘s home in Columbia, mission, to baby-sit her granddaughter.  Barbara‘s daughter and son-in-law were in New Orleans.  They got trapped there by the hurricane.  They were OK, but they could be get home to Missouri.

So, in the crisis, Barbara Roberts stayed in their home, taking care of her granddaughter through the first Thursday after the hurricane.  Ms.  Roberts finally got back to work, after having taken five unpaid days off, whereupon she got fired by John Gentry, president of Positronic Industries, today‘s worst person in the world.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

OLBERMANN:  Within less than 10 minutes from now, George W. Bush will begin the latest speech on the latest phase of the latest crisis of his administration.

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN, the breadth of this one and the amount of time it will be with us, underscored by the fact that the White House has declared 41 states and the District of Columbia either as major disaster areas or in states of emergency.  Why?  The 37 states not directly affected are the places the evacuees have gone.

If another number is needed tonight to put it all in perspective, the price tag that will easily pass $200 billion, meaning it will cost what the war and the reconstruction in Iraq has cost over the last three years.  That, and not the famed St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square in New Orleans, will be the real backdrop to the president‘s speech tonight.

My colleague Chris Matthews will analyze that speech once it is finished.  In the great traditions of journalism in this country, we are now going to ask him to analyze it before it has even happened.

Good evening, Chris. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, “HARDBALL”:  Why not?  Why not, Keith? 

OLBERMANN:  From the purely political point of view, the strategy, the photo-ops, the making hay, the hardball, if you will, when did the president and his team lose their edge?  They have been in a slump for months.  But, since Katrina hit, they look like the Yankees after game three of the playoffs with the Red Sox last year.  Today, they sent him to the Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi, as if reminding everybody of his oil connections and the government‘s oil connections...

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  ... was not among the worst things you could do right now.

Where did the political sharpshooters in this administration go?

MATTHEWS:  Well, the first strike is when they didn‘t beat John Kerry by more than one state.  They barely beat him.  They beat him in Ohio.  And this presidency had a war going for him, a pretty good economy and a kind of a stiff opponent, to put it lightly, and he still only beat him by one state.

The second sign of bad political intel was, of course, Social Security.  People like confidence.  They like the sure thing.  The president said, why don‘t you trade the sure thing for Social Security for a gamble?  And people said, not everybody is an entrepreneur, Mr.  President.  We want to play it safe.  So, he was wrong twice then.

The big loss, I think, came the Wednesday or Thursday after the storm.  With the city of New Orleans flooded, the president had yet to turn on the television set yet.  And when he actually—he actually never did turn on the TV set.  One of his aides put together a DVD to show him what he had been missing on his way to New Orleans that Thursday. 

I think the president may have suffered—and it‘s very early to say this—one of those drops, permanent drops in support, like Jimmy Carter got during malaise, during the hostage crisis, like Ronald Reagan lost 20 points at one point when it was found out that he had traded arms to the enemy, the very issue that he had gotten elected on, dealing with the terrorists, when Carter had the hostage crisis.  He gets caught giving arms to those people that had blown up our Marine base in Beirut. 

So, he took a big fall then.  I don‘t think it‘s that bad, but the president was out to lunch for two days.  We will see tonight if he can recover.  He could well recover well tonight or he could fail.  We will see tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  Thank goodness for DVD burners. 

MATTHEWS:  Yes. 

OLBERMANN:  A line from “The New York Times” this morning.

Republicans said Karl Rove, the White House deputy of staff and Mr.

Bush‘s chief political adviser, was in charge of the reconstruction effort.  After four-and-a-half years of being assailed for playing politics with everything that comes down the pike, can the president put a political figure like Mr. Rove in charge of rebuilding part of the country? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, Karl Rove has proven himself excellent at blaming other people for problems.  He‘s very good on the negative side of things.  He‘s historically very good at it. 

We saw what happened to John McCain in the year 2000.  We saw what happened to John Kerry.  Even though Kerry did well on the debates, he lost the election.  He‘s very good.  He‘s very, very good.  This would be a new kind of job for him, yes.  But you know what?  He‘s a strong enforcer.  And if the job is to make sure that people do their jobs or else, Karl Rove‘s your man. 

OLBERMANN:  All right. 

Now, on this next thing, I know I‘m speaking from naivete here, but it‘s four years since 9/11.  My sharpest memory of the president‘s response to that really was the buzz about the establishment of Homeland Security and how the guy who would be running it would be this dazzling, out-of-the-box selection was the phrase I heard on TV.  And I think I heard it from you. 

And I thought—I actually thought the safety of the nation is a bipartisan concern.

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  Shouldn‘t be political.  He‘s going to name Al Gore.  Or at least he‘s going to name Joe Lieberman. 

MATTHEWS:  Well...

OLBERMANN:  I mean, FDR appointed Henry Stimson his secretary of war,  Frank Knox  as secretary in 1940. 

MATTHEWS:  Right. 

OLBERMANN:  Two Republicans on the eve of World War II.  Of course, instead, we know it was Tom Ridge. 

Do you think that the bipartisan idea has been at least thrown out at the White House?  Any thought that the way to restore the credibility on this issue is to look at it as an American solution, not a Republican solution or a Democratic solution? 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that notion that it would be a bipartisan solution went faster than Muhammad Ali‘s punch of Liston.

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  I don‘t even remember that, it was so brief. 

But, clearly, you‘re right about the protocol here.  Back in 1940, after he beat Wendell Willkie, he sent—Franklin Roosevelt sent Wendell Willkie to London as his personal emissary.

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Of course, Herbert Hoover was brought back by Harry Truman to put together a reorganization of the federal government.

As—you‘re right.  Jack Kennedy, you know, there‘s lot of evidence of him doing the same kind of thing with—of course, he was nice enough to make Henry Cabot Lodge, the man whose Senate seat he took, as ambassador to Vietnam.  That was an unmixed—or a mixed blessing. 

But you‘re right.  It would be a time for a bipartisan effort.  And I really do think that the president really has to find someone in an almost permanent public servant tradition to be head of the—of homeland security effort, and especially the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  I think maybe we should go back to the tradition, which was honored for all those years in terms of the Federal Reserve, in terms of the FBI, in terms of the CIA, when you put a person in there you trust who has a dollar-a-year, sort of wise man image.

OLBERMANN:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  That‘s a great idea.  I hope they hear you tonight. 

OLBERMANN:  Never have before. 

Chris Matthews, who will now get his thoughts together before hosting tonight‘s coverage of the president‘s address. 

Thank you, Chris. 

MATTHEWS:  Thank you, Keith. 

OLBERMANN:  Before that, a quick recap of the editorial background against which Mr. Bush speaks, beginning with the stakes.  They could not be higher tonight, which is why the president‘s earlier stop in the Gulf region this afternoon will undoubtedly strike many as strange, the visit to the Chevron oil refinery by the leader of an administration with controversial perceived ties to big oil already under fire. 

Speaking of the unemployed, if not unsinkable, Michael Brown telling “The New York Times” he blames local authorities entirely for the disastrous disaster response and says he made a blur of calls to the White House as the crisis unfolded, evidently not with much impact.

In New Orleans today, Mayor Nagin says he‘s planning wants to reopen parts of the city just days from now.  And we know a capable young man who could be his deputy, if he needs one, Charles Evans, at 9 years old, an eloquent spokesman for those who suffered inside the New Orleans Convention Center.  We can report to you tonight he is now safe with family in Dallas, Texas.  And he is trying to recover his childhood.  Let‘s hope that not too late.

That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Keith Olbermann.

Next, as mentioned, MSNBC‘s coverage of President Bush‘s address to the nation from New Orleans.  From here, good night and good luck.

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

END   

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