updated 9/21/2005 10:21:50 AM ET 2005-09-21T14:21:50

Guest: Mary Jo Naschke, Joseph Suhayda, Dana Milbank

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

The rise of Rita, the tropical storm morphed into a category 2 in a matter of hours this morning, and barreled past the Florida keys, and now likely headed for the Gulf Coast.

A load on the levees.  Even if the Crescent City just gets rain from Rita, will that trigger another flooding disaster in New Orleans?

Katrina's criminal element.  Once living down South, now thousands of sex offenders are scattered across the country.  Some authorities say the best defense may be you.

And for one New Orleans man, Katrina did more than separate him from his beloved dog.  He lost his guide.  The tireless efforts to reunite James and Jake.

All that and more, now on COUNTDOWN.

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

And it sounds like a terrible case of deja vu, a hurricane hitting Florida on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it's expected to grow into a category 4 storm before making land on the Gulf Coast.

Our fifth story on the COUNTDOWN, the growing horror of Hurricane Rita, the storm beginning as a category 1 hurricane this morning, growing to a category 2 storm as it lashed Key West this afternoon, to the enjoyment of some diehard locals.

It's now headed towards Texas, prompting the reevacuations of the New Orleans evacuees who ended up in the Houston-area shelters earlier this month.  Everyone who couldn't find other accommodations in Houston was bused out to Arkansas, Tennessee, and Nebraska this afternoon.

Well, further down the coast, a mandatory evacuation order for the island city of Galveston, set for tomorrow night.

More on the evacuations in Texas in moment.

But we begin tonight in the Florida keys.

Our correspondent, Mark Potter.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARK POTTER, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  Although the eye of Hurricane Rita never made landfall, the northern edge of the storm still brought angry waves to the Florida keys.

(on camera):  This is the worst we have seen it.

(voice-over):  At the height of the storm, one man ignored the dangers as he struggled to climb from one boat onto another.  Parts of U.S. 1, the only road out of keys, were flooded, and at least one area washed out.

Key West Fire Chief Billy Wardlow found problems near the airport on a stretch of road known as Dead Man's Curve.

CHIEF BILLY WARDLOW, KEY WEST FIRE DEPARTMENT:  It's kind of nasty right here.  We got sponges and seaweed covering the street.  It doesn't look very well here.

POTTER:  At the Key West operations center, officials from various agencies monitored the storm as it passed the island, saying they were much more prepared than Louisiana and Mississippi were during Katrina.

CHIEF BILL MAULDIN, KEY WEST POLICE DEPARTMENT:  It's absolutely essential to have units prepositioned, have resources prepositioned.

POTTER:  Another contrast to Katrina, in Homestead, Florida, just north of the keys, FEMA trucks loaded with water, ice, and other disaster supplies parked at a staging area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We've got members from the 856 Quartermaster Battalion.

POTTER:  And Florida National Guard troops made plans to head to the keys as soon the weather cleared, if needed.

GOV. JEB BUSH ®, FLORIDA:  Twenty-four hundred Guardsmen are mobilized.  An additional 2,000 are on alert.

POTTER:  Even before the storm hit, Florida officials were planning for the aftermath.

CRAIG FUGATE, DIVISION OF EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT:  Reestablish communication, life, safety, security, get commodities in there if needed, get the infrastructure rebuilt, and get the keys open for business.

POTTER:  Much of this help might not be needed, but officials say Floridians, three weeks after Katrina, were more than ready.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  And Mark Potter was supposed to join us live, but the winds are so high that transmission was impossible, so he joins us from the good old-fashioned telephone from Key West.

Mark, why was Florida so much better prepared than Louisiana?  Was it a matter of organization at the state and local level?  Or a faster predisaster response from the government?

POTTER (on phone):  Well, it is a factor of organization, but also a factor of experience.  Don't forget, Florida got hit by four storms last year.  Key West, this is the third storm to hit Key West this year, the sixth storm in two years.

And they really have this system down now.  They had the trucks standings by, the National Guard standing by, ready to move in.  They've been through this drill many times, and they know what works.  They learned from Andrew back in 1992 that you cannot wait to come in.

They did that then.  They really caught a lot of grief from the public in the Homestead area.  And they learned the lesson that Mississippi and Louisiana didn't learn by watching.  They learned it by experience, over and over again.  And they now know that you have to prepare in advance, have the troops ready, have the food and water ready, standing by ready to move in, and the shelter.

And they were prepared to do it again this time.  And some of the people here in Key West were saying that what they did this time could be used as a model around the country.  Get ready, be prepared, do it all in advance, so when the storm hits, there are no surprises.

STEWART:  Mark Potter reporting for us from Key West tonight.  Many thanks for getting on the horn.

For the latest on the projected path of Hurricane Rita, we turn to Bill Karins with NBC WeatherPlus.

Bill, what kind of weather patterns out there that could shift this storm in one direction or the other?  What do you think?

BILL KARINS, NBC WEATHERPLUS METEOROLOGIST:  Well, I wish I had a lot of better news.  I'm full of bad news, Alison, right now.  I haven't said anything good about this storm in the last two or three days.

We're continuing to watch this storm growing, not just in size, but also in intensity.  New update just in from the Hurricane Center.  Winds are at 105 miles per hour, gusts possibly up to 130.

Now, the borderline to get to a major category 3 is 110 miles per hour.  So we're almost there to a cat 3.  It slowed down a little bit.  Was moving west at 15, now down to west at 12.  It's just a minor little drop.

And that pressure continues to drop.  Now, Katrina, that number got all the way down past, like, 920.  I think it was, like, 902 or 904 or something.  So it's got a long ways to go to ever get as strong as Katrina was.  But regardless, a category 4 storm is still in the cards.

I want to show you what's going on.  We just talked to Mark Potter there in Key West.  This storm really intensified just outside of Key West.  The northern eyewall wasn't really well formed during the day.  It really has intensified and wrapped itself up.  Look how symmetric this eye looks now.  This red banding is where the strongest of those winds are.

And Key West, you got lucky.  It was a close call.  Those 100-mile-per-hour winds were just off the coast.  They're still gusts up to 70 and 80.  We're going to have minor damage there.  But it could have been a whole lot worse if this storm had just shifted five or even 10 miles further to the north.

Want to show you what all our computer models are doing.  As of now, none of them are taking the storm up towards New Orleans.  They're all in between just about Houston and all the way down to the Texas-Mexico border.  So that includes Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Galveston, Houston.  Those are all the areas we're going to be talking a lot about over the next couple days, because they're in the potential strike zone.

But one thing you have to remember, with that storm surge, everywhere to the right of landfall is where the worst would be.  So let's say this light blue line was correct, heading right for Houston, everywhere to the right of there, including the Louisiana coastline, would see that same storm surge that they saw in portions of Mississippi.  So don't focus just on those center lines.

I want to show you the storm up close and personal.  The eye has popped out of the clouds.  You can clearly see it here.

Now, I want to show you just how big this storm has gotten.  Katrina was supposed to be a one-in-every-100-year storm.  Hopefully this one won't be up to that intensity.  But it's just as big now, clouds all the way from Jacksonville, Florida, all the way down through Cuba.  And once it gets into the Gulf, the cloud shield will probably easily cover at least half of the Gulf.

Want to give you a comparison  A lot of people are going to compare this to Katrina.  It's only natural, it's only been three weeks.  This was the path that Katrina took through Miami, Fort Lauderdale, down just north of Key West.  This red line is was when it was a category 4 or a category 5 storm, then up to New Orleans.

Now, let me show you the potential path here of what we're going to be dealing with over the next couple days.  In the very beginning of the path, notice how close it is here, right around Key West, right outside of here.  The storms were almost crisscrossing, right on the same point.

But the end path should be different.  The storm Katrina took a northerly turn a lot earlier than what we expect Rita to do.  Rita should take that northerly turn a little further west in the Gulf, and that's why we have from about Houston down to Brownsville as our target region.

And that's why we're very concerned with those residents.  You got about two or three days to get things done and prepared.  And after that, Alison, it'll probably be too late, because the weather on Friday will quickly go downhill.

STEWART:  And so, Bill, is that just merely coincidence, that these two storms looked exactly alike in the beginning parts, in their very early stages?

KARINS:  Well, something—it's kind of weird what happens with the state of Florida.  Remember Andrew.  Andrew actually came in very close to like how Katrina did, right near Miami.  Andrew was a very powerful storm.  Then it weakened, went over the Gulf, never really intensified.

This year the Gulf, I guess it's so warm and the weather conditions are just favorable for development over the Gulf, where other years it wasn't.  So I guess you would have to say it's more coincident than anything else.

As far as what we're going to be watching, this possible turn, we still think that it's not going to hedge farther north.  It will be very eerie if it did.  But as of now, we don't expect that to happen.

STEWART:  All right.  Bill Karins, meteorologist with NBC WeatherPlus, thanks to you tonight.

KARINS:  OK.

COLLINS:  It was the scene of the worst natural disaster to ever hit the United States.  Now, 105 years later, the rebuilt city of Galveston, Texas, is once again facing a potentially devastating hurricane.

I'm joined on the phone for the spokesperson for the city of Galveston, Mary Jo Naschke.

Thank you so much for your time tonight.  I know you must be very busy.

MARY JO NASCHKE, SPOKESPERSON, CITY OF HOUSTON:  Good evening.  Yes, we are busy.

STEWART:  What kind of evacuation order is in place for Galveston right now, and what exactly does it entail?

NASCHKE:  The city called for a mandatory—a voluntary evacuation as of 5:30 today.  The city council met in emergency session and declared a state of emergency for the city.  All normal city operations ceased at the end of the day.  And so they're now operating in an emergency mode.

STEWART:  Now, what about people who are unable to leave of their own accord, such as residents of nursing homes?  What's being done to make sure that we don't see a tragedy like we saw in New Orleans?

NASCHKE:  Well, actually, the city of Galveston began making plans for those people with special needs early on, as soon as the threat of a hurricane was posted.  And so we have already been arranging for transportation, using city transportation to get them off the island.

And also, we've been registering people who do not have their own transportation without special needs.  And that does include evacuees from Hurricane Katrina that we've been housing here in Galveston.

STEWART:  Now, I understand Galveston doesn't have any sort of enormous singular shelter, like the Astrodome or the Superdome.  So where will you be evacuating all these folks to?

NASCHKE:  Well, at this time, we're taking them up Interstate 45 to Huntsville.  We're taking them to high ground.  And Huntsville has already arranged for—the Red Cross has shelters open to accommodate 1,000 people.

STEWART:  Now, does Galveston have any specific issues to the city, the way the levees were specific to New Orleans?

NASCHKE:  No, they don't.  And actually we have—after the 1900 storm, Galveston basically rebuilt the city.  They raised the entire infrastructure up, and they also built a sea wall, which they added onto after years to extend further down to protect them inland.  They have the Gulf Coast on one side and then they have bay waters on the other.  So they do watch the tidal surges very closely, because they'll catch it from all sides.

STEWART:  And I wanted to run this by you before I let you go.  A recent flash poll by our local Houston affiliate KPRC asked about 500 Houston residents if they would leave if a mandatory evacuation was ordered.  Eighty-seven percent said yes, only 9 percent said no.  Now, knowing what you do about your residents in Galveston, do you expect the same response, about a 10th of the population to stay put?

NASCHKE:  Our emergency office at the city has been overwhelmed with telephone calls from people registering to leave.  So what we're finding is, they are heeding the warnings that they saw from Katrina.  They are concerned.  There's an enhanced level of attention being focused on their personal safety.  And we're very pleased to see that.

STEWART:  Well, we wish you and the residents of Galveston much luck tonight and for the rest of the week.  Mary Jo Naschke, spokesperson for the city of Galveston, thank you so much.

NASCHKE:  Thank you.

STEWART:  In New Orleans, 3,000-pound sandbags have temporarily made New Orleans' levees viable again.  But can the bags and the compromised levees hold if Hurricane Rita hits big in the region?

And speaking of big hits, can President Bush's approval numbers take another smack?  Three weeks after Katrina, things are not turning around for the White House.  With Democrats poised to pounce, who will lead the charge?

You're watching COUNTDOWN on MSNBC.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  A hurricane can strengthen significantly over warm waters, like those off the Gulf of Mexico.  And so a ravaged city prepares.  In the aftermath of one comes the dread of another.

Our fourth story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, what Rita could mean for New Orleans.

The good news, a direct hit is not part of the hurricane's projected path.  But realistically, we know how fast those projections can change.  And even a glancing blow could devastate New Orleans' levees, which are patched up, but far from repaired.

It could be June of 2006 before New Orleans' levees are back to the strength they were before Hurricane Katrina hit.  And Mayor Ray Nagin, once eager to let some people come home, has now completely reversed his position.  He has ordered residents who have slipped back into the city to leave immediately.  And he's urging everyone else there to be prepared to go.

Mayor Nagin cautioned that anything over nine inches of rain, or more than a three-foot storm surge, could once again swamp the city.

Let's call in the former director of the Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute at LSU-Baton Rouge.  That's Joseph Suhayda.

Mr. Suhayda, good evening.

JOSEPH SUHAYDA, LOUISIANA WATER RESOURCES INSTITUTE:  Good evening.

STEWART:  One official from the Army Corps of Engineers said that New Orleans' levees are capable of withstanding a little more than, quote, “normal tidal surges.”  Does that sound right to you?  And if so, what are the implications?

SUHAYDA:  Well, parts of the levee system were actually destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.  And so where the levee was formerly 14 feet high, it might be today, say, three feet high.

STEWART:  So that does sound right to you, normal tidal surges would be an issue?

SUHAYDA:  Yes.  We can get three to four feet storm surge even with a tropical storm.  So Hurricane Rita does not have to really come too close to New Orleans to actually cause some flooding.

STEWART:  All right.  We've all heard that the current estimates do not have those levees repaired until June of 2006.  Now, when they're repaired or rebuilt, what would you suggest to make them safer, and, more importantly, better?

SUHAYDA:  Well, I think what we're talking about right now is trying to repair the damage, really not to improve them.  We still have to address the issue that the city needs category 5 protection, ultimately, and even if we repair the levees, we'll only have category 3 protection.

STEWART:  Now, in your opinion, how dangerous is it for New Orleans not to have a reliable levee system for, let's say, the next eight months?

SUHAYDA:  Well, I think in order to really make the recovery a possibility, that you could attract people and businesses back into the city, we have to address the fact that we can't recreate the problem that resulted in the disaster that we have experienced.

So we've got to address the fact that we need category 5 protection.

STEWART:  All right.  What about the drainage component in all of this?  Does this city have adequate drainage?

SUHAYDA:  Yes.  The Jefferson Parish...

STEWART:  I understand there's a helicopter overhead.

SUHAYDA:  Yes, I'm sorry.  The Jefferson Parish side of the metropolitan area actually experienced very little hurricane flooding and has an operational drainage system.  Unfortunately, in the Orleans Parish area, the drainage canals that were supposed to remove rainfall from the city were the ones that were damaged and experienced the breaches.

So right now, they really can't function the way they were intended to function.

STEWART:  Well, beyond repairing the levees damaged by Katrina, what do you believe could be done to protect New Orleans further?

SUHAYDA:  Well, I think there's some other aspects of the flooding.  For example, trying to control or manage the water that would get inside of the city to prevent it from spreading throughout the city.  And then, of course, there's the option of floodproofing individual important buildings, such as hospitals, power plants, important governmental buildings.

So we have to have protection in depth, so to speak, not just rely upon a single component for protection.

STEWART:  And when you say control the water within the city, what do you mean, how do you do that?

SUHAYDA:  Well, for example, the breach in the 17th Street canal allowed water to actually get all the way to the Superdome.  And that was many miles away.  And there are means for controlling the water once it gets in the city, to limit the extent of the flooding, to kind of compartmentalize the city, much as you would have waterproof or watertight compartments in an ocean liner, limit the flooding to a smaller area.

STEWART:  Joseph Suhayda with Louisiana State University, thank you so much for your time and sharing your expertise with us.

SUHAYDA:  Well, thank you, Alison.

STEWART:  President Bush makes his fifth trip back to the Gulf today.  But with each visit, his poll numbers still do not rebound.  Can the Democrats coalesce around one leader and one message while the White House is stumbling politically?

But up next, relief from reality.  Oddball looms with one of the more bizarre school field trips of recent memory.  Hi, kids.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  I'm Alison Stewart, holding down the fort for Keith Olbermann while he's on vacation.  And it is the coolest fort, too.

We take a break from the COUNTDOWN now to remind you that no matter what the big news is, the strange world keeps on spinning, and strange people keep on doing strange things.  And thank goodness for that.

Let's play Oddball.

We begin in Tokyo, where the shocking practice of using child labor to pull 747s around the airport has finally been caught on tape.  Actually, this is some sort of wacky field trip.  Two hundred elementary school students visiting an Areda (ph) airport for The big annual Sky Day, and they decided to play tug of war with a jumbo jet.  As hard as the kids tried, they could not budge of thing, but finally got the wheels rolling with the help of some parents.  And only three kids were able to hang onto the rope after it took off.

We're kidding about that part.

To Dewaz (ph), India, where Mr. Raj Kumar Shandan (ph) is a one def poetry jam.  This is him reciting his masterpiece, which has been certified as the longest poem ever written.  It took him 10 years and 200 pens to write.  It contains more than 10,000 couplets about brotherhood and love and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.  Almost two people showed up to hear him recite the tome, which Shandan says he wrote to bring poetry to the common people.  And I think it's working.

Finally, to Panza (ph) Island, Italy, where two divers have set a new world record, living for 10 days under the sea.  I know a couple of fish that have that record beat.  But this was for humans, actually.  Stefano Barbisi (ph) and Stefania Mensa (ph), yes, Stefano and Stefania, lived in an underwater house with a waterproof sofa, a working TV, and at night slept under the bed to avoid floating to the surface.

They are back on dry land now, and the topside of the bed as well, though after that much time in the water, there's probably some wrinkling issues that need to be settled.

Punchlines to politics.  After the massive storm surge from Katrina comes the so-called tidal wave of spending promised by President Bush.  But big question marks loom over whether it can be done without big waste.

And later, another side effect of the massive displacement after Hurricane Katrina.  Law enforcement officials across the country working together to keep tabs on thousands of sex offenders on the loose.

More on those stories ahead.

But first, here are COUNTDOWN's top three newsmakers of this day.

Number three, FEMA.  If you've been following the if-it-wasn't-so-tragic-and-pathetic-it-would-actually-be-funny (INAUDIBLE) of the 200 trucks full of ice for Katrina victims, here's your update.  They're in Maine.  Two hundred ice trucks from Minnesota, Alabama, Georgia, and Massachusetts have been crisscrossing the country for weeks, and have finally settled in Maine, where they'll wait for further instructions from FEMA.

Wow.  That's all I can say.

Number two, Kim Horn of Mason (ph), Michigan.  She has been arrested and charged with larceny and fraud.  Police say she pretended to be a Hurricane Katrina victim and bilked the city of Lansing, Michigan, as well as various charities, out of thousands of dollars and a house.  Authorities began to suspect something amiss when they looked around and realized that they were in Michigan.

And then number one, New Orleans lawyer-doctor Harold Ehrenberg.  When his city was in its darkest hours, just six days after Katrina struck, Dr.  Ehrenberg teamed with another attorney, and they came up with their big idea, Katrina brand alcoholic beverages.  The pair trademarked the name and slogan with the U.S. Patent Office, “Katrina, get blown away.”  Very classy, guys.

And we'd be remiss if we didn't show you his Web site.  Dr. Harold attorney chiropractor opportunistic booze hustler, and doesn't really say that, but maybe it should.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  Five trips and counting to the hurricane zone for President Bush, touching down today in Gulfport and New Orleans.  But the damage he has witnessed there has translated to damage elsewhere, as in his approval ratings. 

When the president's poll numbers are as low as they have ever been, you have our third story on the COUNTDOWN.  A new poll from Gallup for “USA Today” put the president's job approval rating at 40 percent, tying a previous rock-bottom figure.  Disapproval of Mr. Bush at 58 percent, that's a new high, at the same time, only 49 percent still believing that the president is a strong and decisive leader.  That's the first time that number has slipped below 50. 

Also, Americans are frustrated with the situation in Iraq, more than half now saying we should cut spending for the war effort to pay for Katrina recovery. 

By most accounts, it's going to take a lot more than that to recover the recovery bill.  The president says we will do—quote—“whatever it takes to get the job done.”  And ask anybody who has remodeled anything, whatever it takes is code for huge sums of cash. 

As Norah O'Donnell reports, members of the president's own party are now insisting that that cash get cut from somewhere else in the federal budget. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NORAH O'DONNELL, NBC CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 

Facing the largest and costliest reconstruction in U.S. history, Mr. Bush made his fifth visit to the hurricane zone. 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I was pleased to see the progress being made on the ground. 

O'DONNELL:  But with the immense destruction, the price tag for rebuilding is staggering, perhaps $200 billion.  Add to that the already $200 billion spent in Iraq.  In Congress, the Republican Senate leader explained who will foot the bill. 

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER:  The money right now, as you well, know with our deficit, that means in many ways our children are paying for it. 

O'DONNELL:  That has other Republicans outraged about their party's deficit spending. 

REP. MIKE PENCE ®, INDIANA:  There is plenty of fact in the federal budget. 

O'DONNELL:  Congressman Mike Pence and other conservatives have written to the president demanding spending cuts to offset Katrina's costs, their solution, putting the pork-laden highway bill with 6,000 pet projects on the chopping block, estimated savings, $40 billion.  And a growing number of Republicans want to cut or delay the president's prescription drug benefit. 

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM ®, SOUTH CAROLINA:  If you delayed the Medicare prescription drug program from being implemented by one year, you would save $35 billion. 

O'DONNELL:  Democrats want the president to roll back his tax cuts. 

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER:  This is not the time for tax cuts for the rich. 

O'DONNELL (on camera):  But the president has already said he will not raise taxes.  He's also rejected the ideas put forward by the Republicans to offset Katrina's costs.  In fact, at this point, the White House has not said how it plans to pay for it all without adding to the deficit. 

(voice-over):  Treasury Secretary John Snow said Katrina's cost will sideline efforts to make the president's tax cuts permanent. 

JOHN SNOW, TREASURY SECRETARY:  I think it will push to the back-burner some issues that otherwise would have been on the agenda now. 

O'DONNELL:  All together delaying the president's domestic agenda, while the president and Congress try to figure out how to help Katrina's victims without blowing a whole in the deficit. 

Norah O'Donnell, MSNBC, Washington. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  So, there's a president with his worst approval ratings ever and Republicans who are sniping amongst themselves.  It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that this might be an opportunity for the Democrats to make the case for a change in leadership in the next election. 

Time now to bring in “Washington Post” national political writer Dana Milbank, who has been writing about this for tomorrow's paper.

Hey, Dana. 

DANA MILBANK, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, “THE WASHINGTON POST”: 

Good evening, Alison. 

STEWART:  So, one political science teacher who was quoted in a magazine from Rutgers, he said it's piling-on time.  If it is, why haven't the Democrats been able to get behind one message and one messenger to pile on? 

MILBANK:  Well, they say nature abhors a vacuum, but politicians love one.  So, when they have an opportunity like this and there's no very clear strong leadership, everybody wants to have a piece of the action.  That's happening on the Republican side. 

People are now challenging the president more openly.  An on the Democratic side, too, you have got Howard Dean out there.  You've got Nancy Pelosi.  You have got Harry Reid.  Yesterday, we had dueling press conferences from John Edwards and from John Kerry.  You have got former Presidents Carter and Clinton entering the scene.  Everybody sees a little weakness and they want—and they want to jump in, too. 

STEWART:  But why hasn't one person emerged, do you think? 

MILBANK:  Well, we—one person will emerge.  Unfortunately, for the Democrats, that will have to be the beginning of 2008, so it will be a long time until then. 

Part of the problem here is half the Senate is getting ready to run for president, it seems now, on the Democratic side.  And so everybody wants their share of the action.  You have several—even take this Roberts nomination coming up.  A couple of these Democrats on the Judiciary Committee might like to vote for him, but feel that they can't because they're getting ready to run for president. 

So, everybody has to look at things through that prism, even though it's still a good ways away. 

STEWART:  Is that why President Clinton became sort of the lead trumpeter over the weekend? 

MILBANK:  Well, right.  He's now—his role as a former president is somewhat secondary to his role as a spokesman for a very likely presidential candidate who happens to share a household with him.  So, certainly, that's why people pay close attention to what he's saying. 

And it was also interesting that he was out there involved in this nonpartisan Katrina effort with the president's father.  So, he built up his bipartisan credentials there and then used that a little bit over the weekend to tweak the president. 

STEWART:  And I was also surprised.  When I looked in your very own paper and I saw a Kerry-Edwards headline, had a little bit of a flashback to last year. 

MILBANK:  Really did.  You would think these guys could get their act together.  They both planned major speeches.  And it turns out they scheduled them for the same day, within three hours of each other.  I was needling one of Kerry's advisers about this.  And he said, you know, the real question is, where is Dennis Kucinich today? 

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART:  So, is there a danger for the Democrats here? 

MILBANK:  Well, there's always a danger for the Democrats. 

I guess the advantage is, they're so far down and out that that sort of minimizes the risks.  They have this great opportunity.  The president, as you pointed out, has never been in a weaker position.  The question is, can the Democrats provide a coherent alternative that all of their candidates can voice in the midterm elections next year?  A lot of potential, but so far they have not been able to do it. 

STEWART:  Let's jump over to the other side and talk about the president and the Republican Party. 

What are they to do to combat these poll numbers? 

MILBANK:  Well, you can see from—what I was seeing on Capitol Hill today is, they really don't have an idea.  They're all contradicting each other.  The vice president says, we don't need a czar.  Senator McCain comes out and says, we need a czar to oversee the Katrina effort. 

One says we should postpone the Medicare benefits, as Lindsey Graham was suggesting.  Others say no way on that.  They are just so openly antagonizing each other over the spending.  This is something we have not seen in the five years of the Bush presidency.  They need to get back on message there.  The problem is, they have got this, what people expect is a $200 billion hole in the budget. 

STEWART:  All right. 

And before I let you go, we talked about the Democrats who might lead the charge.  And you talked about the splintering of the Republicans.  What Republican senator or representative might actually benefit from the president having these low approval ratings? 

MILBANK:  Well, I'd hate to think that John McCain would view things in so cynical a fashion, but...

STEWART:  But we can. 

(LAUGHTER)

MILBANK:  But let's just go ahead and do it.  And they can start putting out their McCain signs already for 2008. 

STEWART:  All right.  Dana Milbank at “The Washington Post,” the article hitting the papers tomorrow.  Thanks for the preview and for enjoying a little bit of cynical banter. 

MILBANK:  Thank you. 

STEWART:  Ahead on COUNTDOWN, millions got out of Katrina's path as it raged toward the coast.  And, in the mass exodus, thousands of sex offenders got out as well.  What is being done to find them—next.

And the other national nightmare, coverage of Jennifer Aniston's love life.  The star takes to television to let us all know she wants to be left alone.  Oh, yes, and she is looking for a boyfriend.  Details ahead. 

But, first, here are COUNTDOWN's top three sound bites of this day. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD TERRY, UNICYCLE COMMUTER:  OK.  Well, see you later. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Bye-bye. 

TERRY:  Have a good day. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  You, too. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  Up and down avenue streets.  The Salt Lake lawyer commutes the mile-plus to his office, riding his unicycle. 

TERRY:  Yes, I need a motor on mine. 

(LAUGHTER)

JULIEN MACDONALD, FASHION DESIGNER:  I love animals.  I have got three dogs and a cat.  I wear leather shoes and I also wear a fur coat. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, “THE TODAY SHOW”) 

JAY LENO, HOST:  Toyota has developed a safety device that they say alerts drivers.  When you take your eye off the road, this thing alerts you that your eye is off the road.  

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  A national law enforcement nightmare, how to round up all the registered sex offenders spread across the country after Katrina.  And searches of a very different kind, the efforts to reunite loved ones—tonight, one blind man's quest to find his guide dog.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  When citizens of entire cities were evacuated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, that meant everyone.  We saw images of prisoners corralled on the interstate until authorities could find a new facility.  It turns out that might have been the easy part. 

Our number two story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, registered sex offenders among the evacuees and not checking in.  And it's not just New Orleans evacuees.  Many registered sex offenders from the Gulf Coast are now in shelters all over the country.  And officials are struggling to get a handle on it. 

COUNTDOWN's Monica Novotny joins us now with more.

This is pretty scary, Monica. 

MONICA NOVOTNY, NBC CORRESPONDENT:  That's right, Alison. 

One official I spoke with told me that today approximately 25 percent of all of the nation's sex offenders are currently out of compliance with their parole, probation or registry requirements.  So, throwing a hurricane into the mix simply adding fuel to that fire. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LT. LAWRENCE MCLEARY, LOUISIANA STATE POLICE:  Obviously, Katrina changed a lot of the rules here in Louisiana.  And it exposed a lot of the vulnerabilities in the sex offender registry that we didn't even know existed. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  Four weeks after the hurricane hit, as many as 15,00 sex offenders from the Gulf Coast region forced to relocate.  The question remains, where are they now? 

ANDY KAHAN, HOUSTON CRIME VICTIM ASSISTANCE PROGRAM:  That's the million-dollar question right there. 

NOVOTNY:  And until authorities have the answer, they're now counting on you for help. 

MCLEARY:  I'm sure that the citizens there are notifying the authorities that this person is a sex offender.  They know that for a fact.  And the citizens' eyes and ears are going to be invaluable help to us. 

NOVOTNY:  According to Louisiana state law, sex offenders have 10 days after a relocation to register their new address.  And officials in states like Texas, where thousands of evacuees now reside, say time is up. 

KAHAN:  If you don't let us know, I guarantee you, you're going to end up with a one-way ticket back to jail. 

NOVOTNY:  At the Camp Edwards shelter in Massachusetts, home to more than 200 evacuees, officials found seven sex offenders.  Some now live in separate housing, one sent to a local jail.  In Philadelphia, background checks are under way.  And in Dallas:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We're trying to do everything we can to, number one, maintain the safety and security of the folks that are in the shelters, and, two, get the identified sex offenders that can't be with children out and into other facilities. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We have to sign in both upstairs and downstairs, so we're constantly checking in.  And I'm just very confident in the job that they're doing thus far.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  It's very good, because New Orleans police wasn't trying to do anything at all, nothing at all.

NOVOTNY:  Now Louisiana officials making records available to help police in other states.

MCLEARY:  Our database, it not only has those physical characteristics of that individual and all those identifiers, Social Security, previous address, but it has pictures in there, too. 

(on camera):  And more help is on the way.  Last week in Washington, the House approved the Children's Safety Act, which would create a national Web site for child sex offenders and stipulates the sex felons face up to 20 years in prison for failing to comply with registration requirements. 

REP. MARK FOLEY ®, FLORIDA:  We track library books better than we do sex offenders. 

NOVOTNY (voice-over):  But until tougher legislation is put in place?

MCLEARY:  Be very careful of who you take on your home.  Keep close eye on your kids and know where they are at all times. 

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOVOTNY:  Now, many of the officials I spoke with like Florida's policy new this hurricane season.  And it's been talked about a lot.  It stipulates that sex offenders tracked by the state are banned from public hurricane shelters.  Instead, during mandatory evacuations, they can weather the storm in a local prison. 

STEWART:  So, are these officials really hoping that the public can contribute?  It's up to us? 

NOVOTNY:  You know, one of the Louisiana State Police officials who we spoke to did say that.  He said his hope was that many people managed to evacuate, perhaps by neighborhood and that, when you get into a shelter and you know who your neighbors are, that you might be able to point out offenders to the authorities there at the shelter. 

But, as we saw, so many families got separated.  So, the idea that neighbors might be together is, well, perhaps a bit of a stretch.

STEWART:  And that's a lot to ask of these people at this point. 

NOVOTNY:  Well, exactly.  They have got so much on their plates to worry about, I mean, as you see, moms carrying their children.  They have got a lot to worry about without thinking about this.  So...

STEWART:  Thanks so much for bringing us the report, COUNTDOWN's Monica Novotny.

Well, since it seems to be ladies' night here at MSNBC, here's “LIVE & DIRECT”'s Rita Cosby with a preview of her show tonight. 

Hey, Rita.

RITA COSBY, HOST, “RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT”:  Hi, Alison.  It's always ladies' night.  Don't you know that?

Well, tonight, it's going to have—we are going to have one guy on our show.  We are going to allow Joe Jackson to come onto the show.  Actually, we have a lot of guys.  But Joe Jackson, the father of Michael Jackson, will be on the show tonight.  He's, of course, the dad of the superstar.  But he's doing a lot of things in his own right.  He's down in Corpus Christi, Texas, which, of course, is in the process of evacuating for Hurricane Rita. 

But he's spending time with the evacuees from Hurricane Katrina, which came all the way to Corpus Christi.  He's actually feeding these evacuees, talking to them, trying to give them a lift.  And find out tonight how they're reacting to seeing Joe Jackson.  What is he doing to play his part, as his son is in the process of putting this big relief album out?  Jackson is up front and center trying to help the victims of all these hurricanes.  And that's tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time, in just about 10 minutes from now. 

STEWART:  Well, that's a very nice segue into those stories of entertainment and celebrity news we call “Keeping Tabs.”

The love affair is officially over.  So, get a tissue.  Jennifer Aniston is sick of hearing about herself in the media.  So, where better to pull a Marlene Dietrich “I want to be alone” routine than “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” because nobody watches that, right?  Aniston appearing on the 20th anniversary and sort of season premiere edition of the legendary daytime talk show, telling Oprah between sips of champagne that she is officially ready to date. 

Her divorce from fellow actor Brad Pitt becomes final on October 2.  Mark your calendars.  And although the former “Friends” star never did actually refer to him by name, she did request that people actively covering the story of their breakup—quote—“turn a page.”

Now, the COUNTDOWN staff is pretty sure that book only has one page. 

Unlike the volumes that can be written about supermodels and drug use, this just in.  Kate Moss, whose careers blossomed along with heroin chic, has just been dropped by fashion retailer H&M, no, not because of heroin.  No, no, no, it was because of coke, the model admitting late last week that reports of her cocaine use appearing in the British tabloids were indeed true. 

Maybe had something to do with all those photos of her doing it?  In a statement released earlier today, a spokesman for the Swedish company said Moss was released because she—quote—“is not consistent with H&M's clear disassociation from drugs,” a disassociation which apparently just happened in the past 24 hours, because, on Sunday, the clothes chain said it was giving Moss a second chance.  Psych. 

And from the actors gone wild file, the groping charges against actor Christian Slater have been dismissed.  Slater was arrested in May after allegedly grabbing the tush of a woman outside a Manhattan deli.  Today, he agreed to stay out of trouble for six months.  In exchange, prosecutors dropped the case.  In July, he rejected a plea deal that would have required him to perform three whole days of community service. 

Upon leaving the courtroom, Slater said he was very happy and looked forward to focusing on upcoming projects, like the stage version of “Casablanca.”  Here is looking at you.  No, you can't do that because of the court order, Christian. 

In the heartbreak of Katrina, another heartwarming reunion to bring you tonight.  A blind man forced to leave his guide dog behind as the floodwaters came, tonight, his eyes are back.  That's next on COUNTDOWN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

STEWART:  The president of the Humane Society estimates that, in the three weeks following Katrina, at least 5,000 animals have been rescued.

But he added—quote—“There are many more failures than successes.”  We present—been presented with very few opportunities in recent days to focus on anything but failure, regardless of species. 

But, in our number one story on the COUNTDOWN tonight, we're grabbing one and putting the spotlight on success.  We begin in Mississippi with a fish tale.  OK, dolphin aren't fish.  Four of eight missing dolphins—that would Jackie, Toni, Noah, and Kelly—rescued last week from the Gulf are being swept from their—after being swept from their aquarium tank during the storm.

The rest, Tamara, Shelly, Jill and Elijah, rescued today.  That's right.  They have names.  Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had briefly lost track of the pod.  They were located late this afternoon.  All eight dolphin will temporarily stay at a nearby Naval base until they can find a permanent home. 

The dolphins' survival may be due to one critical advantage.  They can swim.  The same cannot be said for thousands of pets left behind by reluctant owners forced to evacuate ahead of the storm just subsequent flooding.  For those lucky enough to have been plucked from the floodwaters, the odds of being reunited with their people, they are slim. 

Our correspondent Kevin Tibbles now with the story of one man who never lost hope that he his best buddy would beat the odds. 

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  On the day of the hurricane, I was in my home. 

And there was just my dog and myself and the good lord. 

KEVIN TIBBLES, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over):  New Orleans' resident James Murkadel (ph) tried desperately to ride out the storm. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I was lying on the floor in the den.  And the next thing I felt was my feet getting wet. 

TIBBLES:  A neighbor rescued Murkadel from his flooding house, but told him he had to leave his dog behind.  But Jake (ph) isn't just a beloved pet.  He's Murkadel's guide dog. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Without him, I feel like I'm blind again. 

TIBBLES:  Murkadel was relocated to a Red Cross shelter in Houston, desperate for news, but never losing hope that Jake would be found. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Life without him is a thought that I refuse to have. 

TIBBLES:  Church members contacted Leader Dogs for the Blind, the organization that trained Jake, for his microchip identity number and a photo, and posted fliers on over 20 Internet sites. 

SHELLY THORNTON, SHELTER VOLUNTEER:  People just went to work so fast, all the volunteers. 

TIBBLES (on camera):  Then the moment.  Once the water, which was this high finally receded, the National Guard came by here to Murkadel's house to post a missing dog notice.  Sitting here was Jake, patiently waiting for his master. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  All I can say is, God answers prayers. 

TIBBLES (voice-over):  After nearly three weeks and a six-hour car ride...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Jake.

TIBBLES:  ... Jake found his way home. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Hey, man.  Hey. 

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.  Buddy.

TIBBLES:  Dehydrated and a little skinny, but, in Murkadel's eyes:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He looks beautiful. 

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes. 

TIBBLES:  Kevin Tibbles, NBC News, New Orleans. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  All right.  Yes.  I missed you, too.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STEWART:  Now, that's a good story.  And that's COUNTDOWN. 

I'm Alison Stewart, in for Keith Olbermann. 

Time to turn it over to “RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT.” 

Good evening to you, Rita. 

COSBY:  Good evening, and thanks so much, Alison.

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

END   

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

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