updated 9/20/2005 9:28:31 AM ET 2005-09-20T13:28:31

Guests: John Copenhaver, John Harwood, John Barker>

ALISON STEWART, GUEST HOST:  Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow?

Back in the Big Easy, early in the morning, first residents returned to New Orleans.  In the afternoon, the mayor does an about-face and decides no one else can come home.  The reason, another storm looms on the horizon.

The new threat, Rita.  Florida keys residents are told to get out, and Gulf Coast residents wait and worry about Rita‘s path, and what happens if it hits the warm waters of the Gulf.

The political storm intensifying after Katrina.  President Clinton criticizes President Bush, and now even some Republicans are turning against the White House.

A really extreme makeover, or, sci-fi meets the operating room.  A procedure so controversial, doctors stopped short in England and France.  But in the U.S., we‘re on the verge of the first-ever face transplant.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

And good evening.  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.

The order greeted the first returnees just hours after they reached their homes, Get ready to get out again.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the initial repopulations of New Orleans rescinded, thanks to Rita.  The potential hurricane by the end of the week could stress the patched-up levees again.  You know what they say about timing.  The end of the week was when the Army Corps of Engineers believed the city would finally be completely drained of the floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina.

Our correspondent Kevin Tibbles now with the latest on this potential new calamity facing New Orleans.  Kevin?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN TIBBLES, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Alison, after a weekend of open debate about the wisdom of inviting people back to New Orleans, the approaching storm now has everyone here, including the mayor, in agreement that people should stay out for now.

MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS:  I would rather Eric Robert Rudolph on the side of conservatism so that we make sure that we have everybody out.

TIBBLES (voice-over):  Mayor Ray Nagin says if Rita hits New Orleans, the city‘s pumping stations will simply not be able to handle the rush of water.

NAGIN:  We‘re suspending all reentry into the city of New Orleans, as of this moment.

TIBBLES:  At the White House, the president was even more blunt, laying out a worst-case scenario.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  If it were to rain a lot, there‘s concern from the Corps of—Army Corps of Engineers that the levees might break.

TIBBLES:  But in the Algiers neighborhood, where residents had already started to come back today...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Good to be home.

TIBBLES:  ... there were visible signs that, even without a new storm, the city is unprepared for people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  These are the rules and regulations.

TIBBLES:  New Orleans cops were handing out leaflets to anyone coming in of the dangers ahead, gas leaks, downed power lines, mold, bacteria, and toxins.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Like a ghost town.  It looks basically like nobody lives here anymore.

TIBBLES:  Chantel Wright (ph) accepted the mayor‘s invitation to come back home, only to find there are no schools nearby to send her four children.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  This is home.  I‘ve been here all my life.

TIBBLES:  Others face long lines at the few stores that managed to survive.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No stores.  The military‘s out with guns everywhere.

TIBBLES:  With no emergency medical facilities, healthcare officials worry about what they call secondary disasters, citizens getting hurt while cleaning up.

DR. PETER DEBLIEUX, E.R. SURGEON, CHARITY HOSPITAL:  There is the absence of a level one trauma center here within the city.

TIBBLES:  Now, residents are being told to get ready for another hurricane.  And the governor insists evacuation orders will be followed.

GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO, LOUISIANA:  Well, there will be a mandatory evacuation.  And it—and I do believe that 100 percent of the people will listen this time.

TIBBLES (on camera):  Tonight, all those residents who listened to their mayor and came back are now being told they may have to pack up and move out again by Wednesday, Alison.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Kevin Tibbles, thanks to you.

The death toll from Katrina rising to 736 in Louisiana today.  The state Department of Health and Hospitals explained the dramatic increase thus, quote, “Folks are collecting bodies.”

Those very folks now in danger themselves if a new hurricane grazes Louisiana.

Our correspondent Michelle Hofland just got back from one of the worst-hit areas from Katrina, St. Bernard‘s Parish.  Michelle, what‘s the reaction to the possibility of another hurricane?

MICHELLE HOFLAND, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  Well, Alison, just a short time ago, the Louisiana governor spoke.  And she was warning the people in her state to get ready for Hurricane Rita.  If you can leave now, that‘s great.  But if you can‘t, plan, prepare, get your family ready, get your food ready, and get ready to evacuate over the next few days.

A short time ago, I went to St. Bernard Parish, one of the ones most devastated by the last hurricane, Hurricane Katrina.  And the sheriff there told me that everyone in his parish or county must leave tomorrow, 1,200 contractors, environmental engineers, and some families are there tonight.  But he says they must get out, because it‘s not going to be safe if this hurricane hits this area.

The sheriff told me the Navy already pulled out today in anticipation of Hurricane Rita.  And he says even though there‘s not much left to destroy, this is absolutely the last thing that they need.  His deputies have been working around the clock for the past three weeks while also dealing with their own devastated homes and their displaced families.

Also, most of his weapons—that is, his officers need, they were lost in the last storm.  And he is finding it very difficult to protect his parish.  He is blaming that on FEMA red tape.

Today, I flew into St. Bernard Parish on a National Guard Black Hawk, with a soldier who just returned from Iraq, and he was going there to see his home that was flooded out in Jackson Barrack.  His wife and his children, they got out alive.  But even though his house is three feet above the ground, floodwaters were three—or eight feet inside his house, ruining everything.

Three weeks‘ worth of mold multiplying inside.  It was 115 outside the house today, probably 130 degrees inside.  Lieutenant Bill Besseman (ph) pulled his wedding certificate, his children‘s baptism records, one of his medals out today, laid them out to try to air them out.  He and his wife are going back in there tomorrow to get all those records and whatever else they could salvage.

But now that the parish—that the sheriff says the parish is closed, who knows if they‘ll be able to be allowed in to get those things?

And Alison, not only that, like most of the homes around here, most of the buildings, the roof was ripped off of his homes, and those records that he went back to return, they‘re right underneath the hole in the roof.

Back to you.

STEWART:  Michelle Hofland in New Orleans, thank you so much.

The return of residents and the approach of Rita raising new questions about the response of the government.  Why didn‘t the administration‘s voice its concerns about the repopulation plan before it was announced?  And why did the mayor announce a return to a compromised city when it‘s still hurricane season?

For some educated insight on the confusion and apparent lack of communication, I‘m joined by former regional director for FEMA John Copenhaver.

Thank you so much time for your, for your time tonight.

JOHN COPENHAVER, FORMER FEMA REGIONAL DIRECTOR:  My pleasure, Alison.

STEWART:  I want to get people up to speed on this minidrama that‘s been developing.  Thursday, the mayor announces this relocation plan.  Saturday and Sunday, the feds‘ guy on the ground, Thad Allen, criticizes it.  Monday, early afternoon, Mayor Nagin changes position on the evacuation after the first residents had already returned home.

I hope people are still with us.  So, sir, can you explain to me, or do you have an educated guess, on why the federal government and the mayor‘s office did not get on the same page before the repopulation plan was announced?

COPENHAVER:  That‘s kind of a hard one to understand at this point.  The levels of government—local, state, and federal—should all be communicating with each other.  They should be forming up into a team.  They should be making decisions into which each level of government has input.  They should be making certain that they make decisions via a unified command.

And the fact of the matter is that we should not be seeing the kinds of sniping and the kinds of things going on right now with regard to the different levels of government, in essence, contradicting each other that we‘re seeing.

STEWART:  It seems so confusing that it‘s playing out publicly.

COPENHAVER:  That is confusing, because that should not be happening.  The levels of government should be working together.  Local, state, and federal should be discussing these issues.  They should be coming up with decisions.  If they do have disagreements, these disagreements should be discussed behind closed doors.

And when the doors open, there should be one voice and one clear voice, and there should not be contradictory opinions being voiced at every junction.

STEWART:  Let me play you something that Mayor Nagin said at his press conference this afternoon.  And then I‘ll ask you a question on the backside.  Let‘s play this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NAGIN:  The admiral is a good man.  You know, and I respect him.  But when he starts talking to citizens of New Orleans, that‘s kind of out of his lane.  You know, there‘s only one mayor of New Orleans, and I‘m it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Does the mayor have a point here when it comes to the repopulation of his city?  Is the mayor the person who should do this?  Or does the federal government really have some sort of jurisdiction in a situation like this?

COPENHAVER:  The mayor is the top elected official in New Orleans.  And as such, in conjunction with the people that advise him on these issues, he is the one who makes the determination with regard to announcing a repopulation of New Orleans.

But again, I have to stress that the expertise of the federal government, the capabilities of the state and federal government should be taken into account.  There should be cooperation, there should be communication between the governments, and there should be one clear message being spoken.

STEWART:  Let me ask you about this.  Later in the day, it was on the air earlier, and Florida Governor Jeb Bush came out, and he gave a press conference regarding the impending storm, Rita.  And he laid out a very clear plan, a very clear exit plan, talked about there would be fuel on U.S. 1 on the way out, that he had written a letter to the president asking him to support all of this.

Florida seems to be handling this a lot better than New Orleans did.  And I‘m wondering, is it that they have a better-run local government?  Or is it better access to the people on the federal level?

COPENHAVER:  It would be difficult to say that it‘s a better-run local government or more access to the federal government right now.

I think that one of the things that you see in Florida is the fact that they‘ve been through this many times before.  They are threatened by hurricanes virtually every hurricane season, and we all remember what happened last year.  And the lessons that were learned, the kinds of communication that they were able to exercise last year during the hurricane season with four hurricane landfalls, I think has stood them in good stead with regard to Hurricane Rita, or what‘s now tropical storm Rita.

But I think that still, there have been plans in place for the kinds of command and control decisions to be made even in New Orleans, even in the state of Louisiana.  And I‘m not certain where the breakdowns have occurred in that particular situation.

STEWART:  So if you have good plans, you have to have good people execute them, I guess.  That‘s the bottom line.

COPENHAVER:  You have to have both good plans and good people.  And here, I think that it‘s hard to say whether the people have made the right decisions.  We‘re just going to have to go back and take a look at both the plans and the execution of the plans.

STEWART:  And I‘m sure they will.  John Copenhaver, former FEMA regional director for the Southeast, thank you so much for your time tonight, sir.

COPENHAVER:  Thank you, Alison.

STEWART:  And not so rush hour as Floridians flee the keys to get out of the way of tropical storm Rita.

Meantime, a nervous Gulf Coast waits to see where Rita will go next. 

We have the latest from the National Hurricane Center.

And the aftermath of Katrina, the political kind.  Remember those big displays of unity?  Former president Clinton takes a swipe at President Bush‘s response to the catastrophe.

You‘re watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Mandatory evacuations are underway in the Florida keys.  Forty thousand residents there, and another 134,000 living in Miami-Dade County, under voluntary evacuation orders, appear to be heeding officials‘ warnings.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, exit Katrina, enter Rita.  It‘s the 17th named storm of what has already become the fourth-most active hurricane season on record.  Rita is expected to reach hurricane strength later this evening and barrel past south Florida and Cuba early tomorrow, heading on a path which could bring it dangerously close to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

More on that brutal prospect in a moment.

First, our correspondent in Key West is Mark Potter.  Mark, good evening.

MARK POTTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT:  And good evening to you, Alison.

Here indeed in Key West and elsewhere to the Florida keys, people are boarding up, and they are moving out.  These low-lying areas are a very dangerous place to be in any hurricane of any size.  And the Florida governor says, Jeb Bush says that in this area, and in the Miami-Dade County area in total, this storm could affect at least 5 million people.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER (voice-over):  Obeying a mandatory evacuation order for the Florida keys, streams of cars headed north on U.S. 1, trying to beat the storm.  In downtown Key West, workers at Sloppy Joe‘s Bar put up plywood shutters, their third time this year.  Emergency managers urged all residents here to prepare for the worst.

CRAIG FUGATE, DIRECTOR, FLORIDA DIVISION OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT:  We

need the citizens of the keys to understand that their time is now, that tonight, they will run out of options.

POTTER:  After boarding up their key lime pie store, Bill and Robin Wood raised the furniture at his mother‘s house in case of floods and flew her out of town.  But they will probably not evacuate, believing this storm isn‘t big enough.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I would be out of here if it was a four.  If they said a four was coming, I would be out.

POTTER:  Even though the evacuation order is mandatory, police say they can‘t force people to leave.  But officials warn that an increase in hurricane strength could lead to disaster.

BILLY WAGNER, DIRECTOR, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT, MONROE COUNTY:  If the people in the areas that are subjected to storm surge don‘t get out, we‘re going to lose some people down there.  And we may lose many.

POTTER:  At the Lower Keys Medical Center, critical care patients were evacuated to a nearby naval air station and flown out of the area.  No shelters are being opened in the keys because of the evacuation orders.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

POTTER:  Now, Florida Governor Jeb Bush and other officials say the state will be ready for Rita‘s arrival, saying that at least 8,000 Florida National Guardsmen are standing by, are available, at least, and that many of them are actually in position to help out if needed, Alison.

POTTER:  Mark Potter in Key West, Florida, for us tonight, many thanks.  And please take care.

As we mentioned, the prospect of another hurricane coming anywhere near the Louisiana coast was enough for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to suspend reentry into that city and encourage those who had returned to leave again.

A more likely projected path takes the storm to Houston, Texas, temporary home to thousands of Katrina evacuees, who have surely had enough of hurricanes.  None of the above a particularly appealing scenario.

For more, let‘s turn to Bill Karins from NBC WeatherPlus.  Bill?

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHERPLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Oh, good evening, Alison.

You‘re right.  Once this storm, which is growing in size, gets into the Gulf, there‘s no easy way out.  We‘re surrounded by land.  Someone has to deal with this storm.  And the water out here is extremely warm.  They‘re going to be dealing with what should be a powerful hurricane by that time.

Still a tropical storm, but this is about as strong and about as, well, good-looking as you‘re going to get for a tropical storm.  Should be a hurricane shortly.  You can notice the recent flare-up on the bright red.  That‘s where the deepest thunderstorms are, and those bands of rain are now setting up.

Just had a wind gust in Miami right around 30, at about 35 miles per hour.  So those tropical storm-force winds will be arriving shortly.

It‘s only 315 miles east-southeast of Key West.  This storm, unlike Ophelia, is cruising west-northwest at 13 miles per hour.  And it has a date with the Gulf here in about 24 to 36 hours.

The worst of the weather for south Florida, Tuesday morning in Miami, and then by Key West, it should be right around noon on Tuesday, is when the worst of the winds.  And notice category 1 hurricane, quickly going up to a category 2.  This is going to be the strongest storm to hit Key West in a while.

And then after that, of course, we head out into the Gulf.  And there‘s still some questions.  These forecasts do change.  They will change.  This center line is just right now the best guess of where we think it‘s going to head.  This will shift, north, south, it will shift, trust me on that.

Category 3 status, and there is a possibility this could make it up to a category 4 by the time we talk landfall, sometime probably Friday into Saturday.

And, of course, we‘re going to be watching this storm for you very closely here, Alison, over the next couple days.  And it doesn‘t look like this one‘s just going to fizzle out, like we all hoped.

STEWART:  All right, Bill Karins of NBC WeatherPlus, we thank you so much, and I know we‘ll be talking to you again.

We return to the headlines from Hurricane Katrina, and the $64,000 question—or make that the $200 billion question—the politics of paying for the reconstruction on the Gulf Coast.  How‘s it going to happen?

Also ahead, medical history about to be made in the United States.  Doctors on the verge of performing the first-ever face transplant.  It‘s triggered controversy here and in Europe.

Also today, the triumphant return of Oddball, the bizarre goings-on in the world of the weird and the wacky, hopefully helping to us laugh again.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I‘m Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann.

And while the world‘s attention has been properly focused on New Orleans, a lot of other important news has gone uncovered.  You probably had no idea there was a new world record set for the biggest hamburger, did you?

Tonight, I am happy to announce the return of Oddball.

We begin in Hungary with the Fifth Annual Steam Engine Train Festival. 

For one weekend each September, the finest athletes Budapest has to offer -

you say Budapest if you‘re a little affected—you can see how fine they are—compete in various events, such as rushing to put out the track fire, and our favorite, rescuing the damsel in distress, change the track in front of a speeding locomotive.  She doesn‘t appear to be in any actual danger, but these guys don‘t really know that.

They‘re all half-drunk, we think.  In fact, one of the competition‘s toughest events is driving the train without spilling your beer.  And that takes a very steady hand, people.

To Alabama, where, in case you missed it, we had a wee bit of a truck fire on I-59 in DeKalb County last week.  A tractor-trailer caught fire and burned on the side of the road, spilling its load onto the highway, $3.2 million in quarters.  Think of all the laundry you could do at the local Suds and Spin -- $800,000 worth of brand-new Kansas quarters.  I love that new design, the buffalo with the sunflower.  That‘s actually true, by the way.

Armed guards stood by and watched as these guys did the heavy lifting, shoveling the millions of coins into a bucket loader.  Later, another armored car came and took the $600,000 in quarters back to the bank.

Good luck, guys.

And finally, to Serbia, where they like their burgers extra large, and served on corn bread, for some reason.  A team of chefs labored for hours at the National Barbecue Competition yesterday to roll and grill this giant patty, a 62-pounder with cheese, weight before cooking.  That is enough to make me become a vegan again.

Returning to Katrina, the president‘s plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast, politicians on both sides of the aisle saying Mr. Bush needs to rethink his fiscal priorities, this as former president Clinton adds to the chorus of criticism.

And from politics to pro ball, the New Orleans Saints play in their first home game tonight, without their home.

But first, here are COUNTDOWN‘s top three newsmakers of the day.

Number three are our friends at the Food and Drug Administration.  The agency is reportedly planning to burn more than 400,000 MREs, meals ready to eat, that were donated to Katrina victims by Great Britain.  The FDA says that even though they‘re NATO-approved, and they‘re the same ones that British soldiers are eating in Iraq, they have meat from England in them.  So they‘ve been declared unfit for human consumption.

Nice call, guys.

Number two, Bradford Zeigler of Fort Wayne, Indiana.  He‘s been arrested and charged for public nudity after a policeman found him walking naked through a public park.  He‘d been arrested for the same offense in the same park three days earlier.  And if you‘re wondering about his guilt, when he got to court, he stripped naked twice in front of the judge.

Some people were not meant to be confined by clothing.

And number one, Vince Neil of the metal band trying to make a comeback, Motley Crue.  He‘s 44, which is 84 in rock star years.  And that might explain why he fell off the stage in Atlanta over the weekend and broke his leg.  He‘ll complete the rest of the band‘s tour with a walker, making us think Tommy Lee might be the smart one.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Two hundred billion dollars, such a huge some of cash.  It might as well be $200 gazillion for the vast majority of Americans, who can barely comprehend having that much money, let alone spending it. 

Yet, American taxpayers will be spending that much just to clean up Katrina.  And they‘ve already spent that much in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Trying to figure out where all of it is going to come from is our third story on the COUNTDOWN. 

As David Gregory reports from the White House, Katrina has many people suffering good old-fashioned sticker shock. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID GREGORY, NBC WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  The true cost of Katrina is only beginning to sink in, a $200 billion estimate, at least, for reconstruction, much of it to be paid by taxpayers.  That‘s on top of the roughly $200 billion taxpayers have already spent in Iraq today. 

Conservatives are getting fed up, openly complaining about the return of big government under George W. Bush. 

Chris Edwards of the libertarian Cato Institute. 

CHRIS EDWARDS, CATO INSTITUTE:  We may never see a balanced budget in our lifetimes again if the president continues spending like this. 

GREGORY:  Again today, the White House warned that Katrina will swell the $333 billion deficit, but so far has not asked Americans for any sizable sacrifice. 

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY:  First of all, we are going to meet the needs of the people in the region.  The president is adamant about that.

GREGORY:  According to deficit hawks at the Cato Institute, federal spending has shot up one-third since Mr. Bush took office.  Even today, NASA unveiled a new space capsule costing more than $100 billion for travel to the moon. 

But some Republicans in Congress are looking to cut costs, one target, the president‘s $700 billion prescription drug benefit for seniors, said to hit the books next year. 

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Let‘s go back to square one; $700 billion already on a broken entitlement program isn‘t going to work. 

GREGORY:  Democrats, meanwhile, have called on the president to roll back his tax cuts, something he said he won‘t do. 

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), FORMER VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Now he says he want to cut waste, but he won‘t touch two more tax cuts for millionaires and hasn‘t—that haven‘t even taken effect yet. 

GREGORY (on camera):  Does the deficit matter to the White House?  Not as much as Katrina these days.  And the recent NBC News/”Wall Street Journal” poll found that Americans ranked the deficit near the bottom of the government‘s priority. 

David Gregory, NBC News, the White House. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  The effort to raise even more money for the victims of Katrina being led by two former leader of this country.  One of them is named President Bush I, and the other, the fellow who took his job in ‘92, President Clinton. 

But perhaps the current President Bush believed asking his predecessor to lead to fund-raising charge would be enough to keep him quiet.  It didn‘t work.  President Clinton now speaking out against the response that highlighted the divide between American haves and have-nots. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THIS WEEK”)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  It‘s like when they issued the evacuation order.  That affects poor people differently.  A lot of them in New Orleans did not have cars. 

This is a matter of public policy.  And whether it is race-based or not, if you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that‘s a consequence of the action made.  That‘s what they did in the ‘80s.  That‘s what they‘ve done in this decade. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART:  Time now to bring in “Wall Street Journal” national political director John Harwood for some guidance.

John, nice to see you. 

JOHN HARWOOD, POLITICAL EDITOR, “THE WALL STREET JOURNAL”:  Good to see you, Alison.

STEWART:  A lot of people, when they heard Mr. Clinton‘s remarks, had one of those “No, he didn‘t” moments.  Yet, he did.  Why did he? 

HARWOOD:  Well, I think, Alison, Bill Clinton has been getting a lot of flak from Democrats who are deeply, deeply hostile to the Bush administration, people who think that Bill Clinton has given some cover to President Bush by joining with the former president, George H.W. Bush. 

And the early comments that Bill Clinton made were sort of defending the administration at a time when there was a lot of flak flying around in the air, if you will.  And so I think this was an occasion where the president just finally—the former president, Clinton, that is—just finally couldn‘t hold himself back. 

He also, Alison, has a great deal of pride in his work on trying to narrow the income gap, things like cutting—raising the earned income tax credit in a way that helped poor people and African-Americans in particular. 

STEWART:  It made me wonder if there was some sort of a personal issue for former President Clinton.  He came from a part, a background where they had margarine sandwiches and that was maybe a good day for him as a kid. 

HARWOOD:  He noted that in that interview, Alison, and said the same thing of James Lee Witt, who was his FEMA director. 

Another issue here is that FEMA wasn‘t an agency that got a lot of credit during the Clinton administration.  And we certainly saw Hillary Clinton, who, of course, as we know, is gearing up potentially for a presidential run in 2008. 

As soon as this disaster struck and the criticism started to circulate about FEMA being folded into Homeland Security, not being independent, she proposed a bill to separate it out and make it independent again.  So, in some ways, both the former first lady and the former president are vindicating the way things were operating when he was in power. 

STEWART:  Let talk about President Bush‘s speech from last week.  Reporters and analysts all noted that, of course, the president had to come out and address the country.  But it was also to help the president‘s position as a leader, to be frank.  Did it work?  Was there any lingering bounce from last week? 

STEWART:  Well, I think it did work, Alison, in the sense that it was a fairly effective speech.  It was well reviewed.  It got some good press. 

The question is, how much of a difference did it make?  A, you know, I don‘t think that it was universally watched by the American people.  And the impact of a presidential address in the fifth year of a presidency is going to be less.  Words don‘t matter as much as what happens on the ground day by day and week by week.  This was a story that got covered so much and became such an emblem for government gone wrong that one set of remarks from New Orleans isn‘t going to turn it around. 

But the president has got a lot of work to do.  And if he can manage this rebuilding and recovery of New Orleans, he is going to come out a lot better than he is right now. 

STEWART:  Well, he has a whole agenda ahead of him.  He has got tax cuts, prescription drug benefits.  Any of that in trouble?  He has got the war in Iraq, a big-ticket item. 

HARWOOD:  I will tell what you his agenda is right now, Alison.  It is the Iraq war and it is Hurricane Katrina.  Everything else is going to take a back seat.  He may eventually get from the Republican Congress, where he still has the votes, the extension of some of these tax cuts. 

But, right now, he only has got two things on his plate.  And they‘re really in tension with one another.  We saw that in our “Journal”/NBC poll last week.  The American people‘s top choice for how to pay for the Katrina relief is cutting spending on Iraq.  The American people were losing patience in this war even before Katrina.  That‘s going to be hard for the president to juggle those two things.

STEWART:  “The Wall Street Journal”‘s John Harwood, as always, many thanks. 

HARWOOD:  You bet.

STEWART:  In the three weeks since Katrina roared ashore, a huge part of the story has been the children who have been separated from their parents.  Many of those kids are still missing tonight. 

“LIVE & DIRECT”‘S Rita Cosby has more on that.  She‘s joining with a preview for her show.

Rita, fill us in.

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Well, as you know, I just came back from covering Hurricane Katrina for three solid weeks, Monica.

And, tonight, we are going to have someone else who is down there in New Orleans, “America‘s Most Wanted” host John Walsh.  He‘s going to talk about now still about 2,000 kids who we have not been able to locate their parent.  What is going to happen to these kids?  How tough is it to connect them to their families? 

We‘re also going to talk to mayors of a couple different cities, some in Texas, some in Florida, as they get ready for Rita, not me, but Tropical Storm Rita, which is now set to barrel down that coast.  We are also going to talk to residents in New Orleans who are worried what kind of damage yet another hurricane could do on them again.  And that‘s going to be coming up in just about half-an-hour from now—Alison.

STEWART:  That is “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT” at the top of the hour. 

Thanks so much, Rita.

COSBY:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  Ahead on COUNTDOWN, an important distraction for the residents of New Orleans, their beloved Saints taking to the field for their first home game, even though they‘re 1,300 miles away from home turf. 

And then celebrity news, yes, we‘re going there, the Renee Zellweger annulment from Kenny Chesney, and alleged details behind the so-called fraudulent marriage. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Still ahead for us tonight, the New Orleans Saints on the road for obvious reasons, yet playing a home game—football and fund-raising ahead.

And, later, a medical first, doctors in the U.S. in the final stages of preparing for the world‘s first ever face transplant.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  In their 39 seasons with the National Football League, the New Orleans Saints have always been considered underdogs, this season perhaps more than any other.  They are, after all, a team without a home, but not tonight. 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN, the New Orleans Saints home opener in New Jersey.  In the evening‘s first of two “Monday Night Football” game, Giants Stadium plays host to the displaced Saints, as well as many other notable names and famous faces, all there for the dual purpose of football and fund-raising, not the least of whom is our own Monica Novotny. 

Hi, Monica.

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  Hey there, Alison. 

I‘m just a stone‘s throw away from you, essentially in the backyard of MSNBC‘s World Headquarters.  And it is “Monday Night Football.”  So, of course, it is an exciting night.  But tonight, it is also an emotional one.  And that is because, of course, as you said, tonight is the first official New Orleans Saints home game.  But we‘re here at Giants Stadium.  They‘ve adopted this for their home game tonight. 

This game was supposed to be played on the 18th, yesterday, at the Superdome.  But, of course, the Saints, like so many thousands of others, have been displaced.  But the good news is, the Giants and the NFL have really rolled out the welcome mat here.  They‘ve painted on the west-facing end zone Saints.  If you go inside the stadium, as we just were, there are Saint banners up all over the place. 

The Saint stations, the New Orleans cheerleaders are also here.  And, of course, the players are here.  And we saw them just a little while ago in their home-colored uniforms ready for tonight‘s game. 

Now, tonight is really the grand finale of what has been a weekend-long fund-raiser by the NFL for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  And so far, they say they‘ve raised more than $10 million.  And just before the game started, one of their top fund-raisers stepped out on to the field for a few moments, former President George Bush. 

And I asked him why it was so important for him to be here tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  Well, I‘m so appreciative of what the football league, NFL, is doing for charity for Katrina.  Unbelievable.  And Mr. Benson (INAUDIBLE) my dear friend who owns the Saints.

NOVOTNY:  What was your gut reaction watching all this unfold on television? 

BUSH:  Overwhelmed, like everybody else.  Unbelievable.  I know that area.  We used to be in the offshore business down there.  So, I know the low country there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVOTNY:  Now, in addition to former President Bush, New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass is also here.  And he brought a few members of the New Orleans Police Department, as well as a few members of the New Orleans Fire Department with him to enjoy the game. 

But probably the most important Dips here tonight, Alison, are the more than 600 evacuees who were brought here to enjoy this game.  They were given tickets and transportation and just a break from their new reality. 

STEWART:  I hope they all have a really good time. 

Hey, before I let you go, these two teams...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I mean, everybody has been nice and just make you feel at home.  It‘s been wonderful.  It great to see everybody.  If this had a roof on it, I would feel like I was at the Dome. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Win or lose, it doesn‘t matter, as long, as every week, when they play, when they‘re on, we forget about what happened.  For three hours, we forget. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVOTNY:  Now, Alison, right now, the score is 14-7.  The Giants are up.  But, as you heard the fans say, win or lose, they want the distraction and they‘re cheering for the Saints.  And they‘ll be—they‘ll be happy at the end of the night, no matter what, because they got just that. 

STEWART:  Yes.  Those folks definitely deserve a break. 

Hey, Monica, these two teams, they have met under similar circumstances before, right? 

NOVOTNY:  Yes.  It is actually almost an eerie coincidence. 

You know, after September 11, the Giants‘ first home game back here at the stadium, they played against the New Orleans Saints.  And, you know, it was interesting, because, back then, the Giants were being dubbed America‘s team.  And they were holding on their backs all of that responsibility of being the symbols for recovery and rebuilding. 

And, tonight, really, they‘ve passed that baton over to the Saints. 

STEWART:  And I‘m wondering, have you gotten any sense of how the players are handling all this?  I know they‘re professionals and all.  But, gosh, so many of them lost homes and have family down there still. 

NOVOTNY:  You know, it has really been a long journey for them as well.  And they‘re tough and they say, when they‘re on the football field, it is all about the game.  But think about what they have been through. 

This team evacuated before the hurricane hit.  So, that was certainly good news.  They were able to evacuate with their families.  But they‘ve been moved to San Antonio, which is a temporary home for them.  And they‘ve been on the road.  And the rest of their games will be on the road, even though they‘ll call some of them home games, both in San Antonio and in Baton Rouge.  So, they‘re not really going to get home for a long time—

Alison.

STEWART:  All right, Monica Novotny at Giants Stadium, thank you so much. 

And now for the return of our nightly roundup of celebrity and entertainment news, “Keeping Tabs.” 

And is it a coincidence or destiny that our first entry is Michael Jackson?  The king of pop has talked to a reporter for the first time since he was acquitted in his child molestation trial.  And he says it was—quote—“the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.”  But Jackson said he is moving full-speed ahead on his song for Katrina relief, tentatively titled “From the Bottom of My Heart.”

Jackson says—quote—“I am constantly working on it”—end quote. 

He and his three kids are still in Bahrain, the guest of Prince Abdullah.  Jackson said his host is—quote—“the very best, amazing, so kind”—end quote.  And Jackson wants to thank him from the Bahrain of his heart.  Oh.

And maybe it is not heartbreak, but the breakup of Renee Zellweger and her husband, singer Kenny Chesney, it‘s fueling plenty of rumors.  OK, if you didn‘t know they were married in the first place, don‘t worry.  You‘re not the only one.  And it wasn‘t that long anyway.  Zellweger has asked for an annulment of the four-month unions, the court papers citing fraud. 

The rumor mill has picked up from there, speculating that the “Bridget Jones” ingenue wanted kids.  Chesney didn‘t.  But, in a statement, Chesney says the reason for the annulment is—quote—“the miscommunication of their marriage at the start.”  Oh.  And Zellweger released her own statement, saying the term fraud is—quote—“simply legal language and not a reflection of Kenny‘s character.”

Isn‘t that romantic? 

Is Hollywood movie magic actually coming to an operating room here in the United States soon?  From the movie “Face/Off” to real-life face transplants. 

Stand by. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Is it the dream of science or the nightmare of Frankenstein?  The ability to transplant human organs has now advanced to something intimately tied to our own identity. 

Our number one story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, the face transplant, not a face-plant, a face transplant.  It‘s a radical operation intended for extreme cases, people who have been severely disfigured.  And, at the Cleveland Clinic, interviews are about to begin with five men and seven women, the mission, to find the best match for this medical first. 

NBC‘s Matt Lauer has the report. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)  

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER:  This is a state-of-the-art morphogenetic template. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATT LAUER, CO-HOST, “THE TODAY SHOW” (voice-over):  What just a few years ago was Hollywood science fiction could soon be reality. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “FACE/OFF”)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR:  Then we simply connect the muscles to your ducts and nerve endings. 

JOHN TRAVOLTA, ACTOR:  So, you want to take his face and mine...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LAUER:  The first face transplant is now being planed by a team of doctors at the renowned Cleveland Clinic.  But unlike the movie “Face/Off,” the goal isn‘t to look like someone else, but to give a patient whose face has been permanently disfigured by burns or accidents a new chance at a normal life. 

To break this medical frontier, microsurgeons will replace the patient‘s face with one with a cadaver donor.  There‘s some disagreement between doctors on what the transplanted face will look like.  Since bone structure largely determines facial appearance, the patient could look very much like they did before they were disfigured, while other experts believe the patient will look more like a combination of themselves and the donor. 

DR. THOMAS ROMO, CHIEF OF FACIAL SURGERY, LENOX HILL HOSPITAL:  You‘re taking a person who has a disfigurement and that they cannot hide their face and we are covering that and making them look better.  The downside on that, of course, are the risks that we don‘t know about yet. 

LAUER:  And some critics believe those risks are too great.  There‘s the possibility of rejection and the higher chance of disease as a result of strong suppression drugs recipients must take.  There‘s also the psychological effects of wearing another person‘s face. 

ROMO:  Are they going to accept that face as their own?  Are there going to be times when they‘re going to feel kind of squeamish about having somebody else‘s face on their face?  Those are psychological frontiers that we have never dealt with. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  That was Matt Lauer reporting. 

I‘m joined now by Dr. John Barker, director of plastic surgery research at the University of Louisville, where the first hand transplant in the United States was performed back in 1999.  Dr. Barker and his team are also seeking permission to perform face transplants. 

Dr. Barker, good evening. 

DR. JOHN BARKER, DIRECTOR OF PLASTIC SURGERY RESEARCH, UNIVERSITY OF

LOUISVILLE:  Good evening. 

STEWART:  So, I understand there are 12 people interviewing at the Cleveland Clinic to receive this face transplant.  What kind of person is the ideal match to be the first? 

BARKER:  Well, in considering that, you know, the selection criteria, you have to look at, first of all, the injury that the person has and then the immunological part and then, of course, the psychological part. 

And so, in terms of the injury, the injury is a severe facial disfigurement, in which case that other trans—or reconstructive techniques are insufficient to give a good result.  Immunologically, it‘s just the blood-typing and the matching.  And then, in terms of psychologically, there‘s a whole workup required to make sure that this person will be able to handle all the pressure, not only of the immunosuppression but all of the attention that he or she gets following...

(CROSSTALK)

STEWART:  And the fact that they‘re going to be looking into a mirror and seeing someone else. 

BARKER:  Absolutely. 

STEWART:  Do—will this person resemble themselves at all in terms of facial expressions and the like? 

BARKER:  We have done some research on that, not in terms of facial expressions, but the whole concept of taking the—a mask-like soft tissue from one person and draping it onto a cadaver, you know, the skeletal infrastructure of another person.  And actually, they look like a mixture of the two people. 

STEWART:  So, I‘m wondering why this hasn‘t happened before.  It seems like a surgery that, with all the medical technology we have out there and all the information, that this could have happened before. 

BARKER:  Well, it wasn‘t until just in, you know, 2000, 1999, when we were part of a research effort that demonstrated that a certain cocktail of drugs could be used to prevent rejection of skin.  That‘s what led to the hand transplants that have been done. 

And so before that, it was thought that the drugs available would not stop rejection of skin tissue. 

STEWART:  Is that the biggest risk? 

(CROSSTALK) 

BARKER:  Sorry? 

STEWART:  Is that the biggest risk? 

BARKER:  Well, the risk—the risk that we discuss often, is the risk of taking those drugs worth the benefit of getting a face transplant?  And our position and our research indicates that, yes, it is. 

STEWART:  Well, if you‘re having a recipient, you obviously need a donor.  Is there someone who is an ideal donor? 

BARKER:  Well, that depends largely on what the defect of the recipient is. 

But, as much as possible, we would try to match the age, the gender, as much as possible.  But there are a couple strict, you know, selection criteria.  And those are—involve more in the immunological blood-typing, tissue-typing. 

STEWART:  And, as you‘re discussing this, Doctor, I‘m sure you‘ve discussed the ethical issues.  Obviously, this would be a fantastic occurrence for someone who is profoundly disfigured, perhaps for an accident.

But what about someone who wanted it for other reasons?  Will there be lines drawn about whom can receive this surgery? 

BARKER:  Well, I‘m sure that that will be discussed.  That‘s not really what we‘re discussing, because, clearly, anybody that would, you know, that is being considered by our team or I think by any other team are people who are severely disfigured and not, as some people have stated, for cosmetic reasons. 

STEWART:  Dr. John Barker, director of plastic surgery research at the University of Louisville, thank you so much for your time, sir. 

BARKER:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  That‘s COUNTDOWN.  I‘m Alison Stewart. 

Here is “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT”—Rita.

COSBY:  Thanks so much, Alison.

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

Copy: 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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