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Daily Nightly: Another night on location

Go behind the scenes of ‘NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams’ in the broadcast's blog.

Sept. 16, 2005 | 4:10 p.m. EDT

Two brief follow-ups from last night's broadcast (pictured below... this is what Nightly News looks like from the field... power, including lighting, supplied by generator... note the ingenious water bottle holder, invented by cameraman Dwaine Scott) having to do with two specific stories. First, the marriage certificate we found on the interstate highway: We found the couple, who are apparently staying at two SEPARATE shelters, both military bases. Details on tonight's broadcast.

And about young Charles Evans, the little boy who is just so extraordinary: So many people have come forward and there are such big plans for him, please rest assured that if just HALF of it comes through, his future will be much brighter. It's important to all of us who have been touched by his life that he have a good future, but more immediately that he have a childhood and get a good education. (Video link: Campbell Brown's report on Charles)

We just returned from a drive (to and from a shoot that will air tonight on the return of the blues) through the famous Garden District, and I was stunned at the damage. All cars have visible high-water marks, and have been dragged into the median strip along the grand boulevards. All homes have the same markings. The scope of the flooding (the streets are now dry, dusty and still filled with debris and downed wires) is overwhelming. For those who know this city, it's particularly striking along Napoleon and St. Charles. During our drive (producers Jean Harper, Subrata De, our off-duty law enforcement officer also driving the car) between us all, we mentioned comparisons to Pompeii, Baghdad and Banda Aceh. All are accurate. While I can't vouch for Pompeii, I can confirm the similarity to the other two.

On the broadcast tonight we'll have a review of the President's speech and the job ahead, and a special investigative look at one of the ongoing blunders in the recovery effort. And we'll probably mention the power in our part of the city: the streets were lit last night, starting 30 minutes before the President's motorcade came through... then they went dark an hour after he left.

On the NBC front, we're all thrilled at our decision to open a formal bureau here. It's simply a recognition of the obvious: this is going to be an ongoing story, with ramifications and recovery stretching years ahead of us. While our compound here operates beautifully, it still amounts to a collection of RVs, tarps and folding tables. It will be great to have a bricks-and-mortar operation.

Historian and New Orleans native Douglas Brinkley is here at the compound. He is already hard at work on a book on this disaster, apparently a combination of his own reporting and oral histories of what happened. He is relieved that the D-Day museum (the formation of which was so important to Doug and his mentor, the late Stephen Ambrose) is largely undamaged. I've driven by the facility and considering its location and the damage surrounding it, its condition is quite remarkable. So far the best work I've read on the anatomy of this disaster was published by the Boston Globe. It is called CHRONOLOGY OF ERRORS: HOW A DISASTER SPREAD. While there will be many others, for a snapshot of a crisis that is still unfolding, it's an impressive piece of journalism.

We have a lot of interesting journalism of our own tonight, and we hope you'll join us.

Sept. 16, 2005 | 3:45 p.m. EDT

Getting iced (Marisa Buchanan, NBC News Producer)

My crew and I headed out early yesterday looking around for ice and water lines. Not for ourselves, but to find out if there is a continued need for the bare necessities like that here in New Orleans. It didn’t take long to find. As you’ll see tonight on Nightly News, Lisa Myers is reporting that many supply trucks and planes are criss-crossing the country or sitting on tarmacs, costing taxpayers money when people are still in desperate need down here.

That is not to say that people here are without any help, but the message was clear from the people we talked to on the outskirts of the city: aid needs to keep coming. Pennsylvania National Guardsmen who are running the ice line told me that they call into a distribution point three times a day, reporting back how much they’ve given out, and how much more they need. Demand doesn’t seem to be waning. Cars are lined up down the street waiting for ice, water and MREs and they tell me its been like that everyday from open to close. People, with or without electricity, can’t drink their own water and need the supplies to keep food, water and even some medicines cold. Ice is a premium commodity for all of us here. It feels like mid-summer and it's hot, really hot. Those who have the added burden of cleaning and sorting out their lives and homes will need aid for a long time to come.

Sept. 16, 2005 | 2:05 p.m. EDT

NBC News opens a New Orleans bureau (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)

Brian has repeatedly said in this blog that Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath will impact countless aspects of American life far into the future. That fact was recognized today by NBC News, which announced the opening of a New Orleans bureau. Here's an excerpt from the press release issued by NBC News Communications:

"As part of NBC News’ on-going commitment to reporting on the recovery and rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina, the network will open a full-time news bureau located in New Orleans. The bureau will operate in conjunction with the NBC affiliate WDSU, effective immediately... Said acting NBC News president Steve Capus: 'The establishment of this bureau demonstrates our commitment to thorough and complete coverage of the storm’s aftermath, rebuilding efforts and all of the important societal issues associated with this story.' ...

Frieda Morris, NBC News’ southeast bureau chief will serve as the New Orleans bureau chief. Joining Morris, will be a team of NBC News correspondents, producers and crews. The first correspondent assigned to the bureau will be Martin Savidge who has reported from New Orleans since the storm hit the region. In addition, NBC’s senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers will report out of the New Orleans bureau from time to time."

Martin filed this reporter's notebook for earlier in the week, looking back on how the Katrina story went from "bad to worse to inconceivable."

Sept. 16, 2005 | 9:42 a.m. EDT

Friday morning (power) line

I am duty-bound to report the talk of the New Orleans warehouse district last night: there was rejoicing (well, there would have been without the curfew, but the few people I saw on the streets were excited) when the power came back on for blocks on end. Kevin Tibbles was positively jubilant on the live update edition of Nightly News that we fed to the West Coast. The mini-mart, long ago cleaned out by looters, was nonetheless bathed in light, including the empty, roped-off gas pumps. The motorcade route through the district was partially lit no more than 30 minutes before POTUS drove through. And yet last night, no more than an hour after the President departed, the lights went out. The entire area was plunged into total darkness again, to audible groans. It's enough to make some of the folks here who witnessed it... jump to certain conclusions.

It is impossible to over-emphasize the extent to which this area is under government occupation, and portions of it under government-enforced lockdown. Police cars rule the streets. They (along with Humvees, ambulances, fire apparatus, FEMA trucks and all official-looking SUVs) are generally not stopped at checkpoints and roadblocks. All other vehicles are subject to long lines and snap judgments and must PROVE they have vital business inside the vast roped-off regions here. If we did not have the services of an off-duty law enforcement officer, we could not do our jobs in the course of a work day and get back in time to put together the broadcast and get on the air. As we are about to do.

Sept. 15, 2005 | 10:40 p.m. EDT

Instant analysis and early reaction

Early reaction seems to be this: there will be local anger in this region (and many may find this frustrating) at the very portions of the speech meant to convey real and rare contrition on the part of the President. The anger may be in reaction to the government denials (of any major problems) and reassuring statements during that initial week of hell in this city. It truly appeared to be, as some branded it, a split-screen reality. During one particularly devastating briefing, Secretary Michael Chertoff appeared to be delivering a sunny and in-control message, especially when juxtaposed with the chaos that MSNBC, for one, was showing in the other half of the screen.

There will be the predictable chatter about the White House advance team's choice of the backdrop... one of the truly beautiful places in the Quarter (indeed in all of New Orleans). The other choices, a friend in politics points out: were devastation (a downer but real) or desolation (a compromise location that would match the reality on the ground here tonight). There will be locker-room deconstructions of that walk the President took (from his initial position behind the statue of former President Andrew Jackson) en route to the podium. I must say that taking the satellite delay into account and absent any real timing, I chose the path of least chance of on-air mess: I stopped talking and let viewers take in the solitary stroll prior to the start of his remarks.

As I post this, some analysts are complaining about the cost, the lack of a czar, and the government infrastructure this effort will take. I think it's fair to say that no one can truly envision how large a project this will be. A fair approximation would be: combine several of the three-letter agencies of the FDR years and you'll come close.

One final note from the NBC compound adjacent to the Mississippi: Russert seemed surprised at the girth, in person, of the 40-foot dreadnought RV your humble blogger drove from Baton Rouge. Here at the compound, we call it by a simpler name: housing. We're in the middle of a hot and humid spell here in New Orleans and we're fearing afternoon rain tomorrow... on behalf of all those living under tents, FEMA tarps, and even less, we'll check back in tomorrow.

Editor's note: If you missed the President's address to the nation, you can read the whole thing here. Or if you prefer video, watch portions of the speech in the box above. 

Sept. 15, 2005 | 9:37 p.m. EDT

Signs of life in the French Quarter

Contrary to the press pool report, our cameraman (and production crew) in the warehouse district report the lights came on here (near Julia Street) 30 minutes before the president's motorcade drove by. Tonight many blocks and a host of notable buildings have power for the first time. We are hearing building alarm sirens coming on as if frozen in the wail of the trauma of the storm. Steady stream of humvees through here. Some reserve markings, some 82nd Airborne.

Sept. 15, 2005 |8:27 p.m. EDT

Waiting for POTUS

Security is tight in the part of the city where the President is going to speak. There is much discussion in the press corps, at least, at the choice of locations for tonight's speech. Advance reports (exact location being withheld for security reasons) indicate it's a "beauty shot" and not damage or abject desolation... two of the hallmarks downtown these days. Advance reports also say the President will "walk" during his speech... move around as part of his, too is generating as much chatter as the substance of the speech. In the early haze of guidance from sources, indications are he will not name a "disaster czar" tonight. Just about all of the above is, as always, subject to change. We understand it's the product of Gerson's keyboard... the very place the President has turned to in the past when he needs his prose to soar.

The 82nd Airborne still patrols the streets (on foot) in our part of the city... there are still an overwhelming number of law enforcement organizations here. The number of automatic weapons (with muzzles exposed) is still striking, and the roadblocks are so random and plentiful that we are recommending that people leave hours in advance of their arrival times... for anything... in order to get there on time. The dust is starting to pick up from the sludge where the water once stood in the streets. It's a hot and humid night in New Orleans...Tim Russert will be leaving our compound shortly to get in position for our live Special Report at 9 p.m. EDT.

Sept. 15, 2005 |

Excerpts from the presidential address (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)

The White House has released excerpts from the President's primetime speech tonight in New Orleans. For more on what to expect, read today's earlier post from White House Correspondent Kelly O'Donnell. Here are the excerpts, as prepared for delivery:

"Tonight so many victims of the hurricane and the flood are far from home and friends and familiar things. You need to know that our whole Nation cares about you - and in the journey ahead you are not alone. To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country. To every person who has served and sacrificed in this emergency, I offer the gratitude of our country. And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes … we will stay as long as it takes … to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know: There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."

"And the Federal government will undertake a close partnership with the states of Louisiana and Mississippi, the city of New Orleans, and other Gulf Coast cities, so they can rebuild in a sensible, well planned way. Federal funds will cover the great majority of the costs of repairing public infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems. Our goal is to get the work done quickly. And taxpayers expect this work to be done honestly and wisely - so we will have a team of inspector generals reviewing all expenditures."

"The work that has begun in the Gulf Coast region will be one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen. When that job is done, all Americans will have something to be very proud of - and all Americans are needed in this common effort."

"The government of this nation will do its part as well. Our cities must have clear and up-to-date plans for responding to natural disasters, disease outbreaks, or terrorist attack … for evacuating large numbers of people in an emergency … and for providing the food, water, and security they would need. In a time of terror threats and weapons of mass destruction, the danger to our citizens reaches much wider than a fault line or a flood plain. I consider detailed emergency planning to be a national security priority."

"I also want to know all the facts about the government response to Hurricane Katrina. The storm involved a massive flood, a major supply and security operation, and an evacuation order affecting more than a million people. It was not a normal hurricane - and the normal disaster relief system was not equal to it."

Sept. 15, 2005 | 4:35 p.m. EDT

Snapshots from New Orleans

Interview over, we have completed the drive back over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and have reached our base in downtown New Orleans. Helicopter traffic is as thick as it was during our last visit just a few days ago, with an added military presence no doubt due to the President's arrival here.

We joined the afternoon editorial meeting by cell phone, only to have service drop out mid-span on the causeway. I just caught up with Executive Producer John Reiss and we went over not only tonight's Nightly News (first feed at 6:30 p.m. EDT) but the NBC News Special Report carrying the President's speech tonight at 9 p.m. EDT and the second live feed of Nightly News at 9:30 p.m. EDT, for the West Coast, updated to reflect the President's remarks.

The ride into the city was extraordinary... water lines everywhere on trestles and overpasses. One city pumping station was back up and running. Mattresses and garbage are still strewn in the center of Interstate 10... the pavement that served as a de facto refugee (they were not yet evacuees) camp during the height of the crisis. The news of the day is the mayor's declaration that New Orleans will be "open" by Monday... the condition of the city would argue otherwise. Tim Russert will tell of his tour of St. Bernard Parish this afternoon. He was rather shaken by what he saw and the people he met.

We have a tight-fitting broadcast tonight including an update on conditions in Mississippi. We hope you can join us.

| 3:31 p.m. EDT

Who's going to pay? (Mike Viqueira, Capitol Hill Producer, NBC News)

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other enemies of profligate government spending are calling on the President to tell the American people tonight how all this Katrina relief is going to be paid for.

"We are going to end up with the highest deficit, probably, in the history of this country," McCain said at a news conference today at Capitol Hill.

McCain and conservatives are becoming more and more distressed over the level of emergency spending for Katrina that is not being "offset" with corresponding spending cuts elsewhere. This comes after comments made Tuesday by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who implied that after 11 years of Republican rule in Congress, government has been cut to the bone. The story in the Washington Post this morning raising the $200 billion figure for Katrina pretty much put the deficit hawks over the top (link).

McCain floated the idea of reopening the just passed highway bill and cutting out much of the more than $20 billion worth of "pork" that was allocated to members' districts. That's not likely to go over very well.

Sept. 15, 2005 | 3:00 p.m. EDT

Levee repair update (Scott Foster, Pentagon Producer, NBC News)

The commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said today workers have had "very good success" draining flooded areas of New Orleans, leading the Corps to now project that most of New Orleans will be drained by the end of this month, with the French Quarter completely drained by Oct. 2.

Lt. Gen. Carl Strock, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said the Corps has made "deliberate breeches" in several levees around the city to allow "gravity drainage" of waters back into Lake Pontchartrain. He said the Corps is working with FEMA to test toxic levels in that water, but said they haven't detected "alarming rates" yet.

Given the current weak condition of the levees, Strock admitted the Corps would have a "tough time dealing with a category 3 hurricane right now." He said some additional breeches, including one in the outlying Placquemines area, have been discovered recently, but he stressed that no water is now flowing into New Orleans.

The Corps has spent $440 million in response to the hurricane, a majority of which Strock said was for commodities such as ice and water.


FBI open for complaints

NBC's Pete Williams
NBC's Pete Williams

The FBI has opened a telephone tip line, 1-800-CALL-FBI (800-225-5324), to collect information and complaints of public corruption and government fraud in connection with the Hurricane Katrina aftermath.

The line will be staffed by FBI personnel and the information collected will be analyzed, investigated, and shared with state, local, and federal law enforcement personnel, the bureau says.

Sept. 15, 2005 | 1:27 p.m. EDT

Authority in New Orleans

Having landed in New Orleans, we are now traveling on Interstate 12, after traversing the Causeway across Lake Pontchartrain. We are headed to Slidell, La. and an interview with the forecaster who sent out the chilling special weather statement on the eve of the hurricane... and predicted the damage with such alarming precision.

We are under escort thanks to an off-duty law enforcement officer... like any military operation, it helps to have Authority with you when confronted by Authority. This is very rapidly becoming the most credential-ed region of the United States. Roadblocks are prevalent but scattershot... rules of the road change, it seems, by day. Depending on the jurisdiction posted at the roadblock you happen to approach... the assumption often is that you're with al-Qaida. The reception can be very brusque, and many roads remain shut to normal everyday vehicular traffic.

Later this afternoon we will make our way to what passes for an NBC News compound in downtown New Orleans. Tim Russert will join me there. Nightly News will originate from that location, which happens to be just blocks from where the President will deliver his primetime speech tonight.

Sept. 15, 2005 | 12:10 p.m. EDT

Previewing tonight's presidential address

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell
NBC's Kelly O'Donnell

Senior officials say the President's remarks are now expected to run about 20 minutes, revised down from the earlier guidance of 30 minutes.

The initiatives Mr. Bush will discuss include education, job training and housing. The president will also say that many jobs generated by the reconstruction should go to Katrina evacuees.

Officials also note Mr. Bush will talk about incentives for small businesses and specifically, businesses owned by minorities. Aides say the president will also speak about the "long history of injustice that led to poverty and inequality" in the region. He will indicate that it will "not be overcome instantly" and stress the "importance of acting in a bold way."

Finally, there are no plans to change the administration's stand on tax cuts. One official told me raising taxes to pay for Katrina recovery "would particularly hit people hurt by the hurricane."

Sept. 15, 2005 |

The digital transom

Getting documents “over the transom” is an old journalist phrase. The phrase is archaic. It comes from a time when a small, hinged window, a transom, was placed above a doorway, mainly to ventilate a room… this was before air conditioning. The door might not be open, but the transom was. If a friendly source wanted to deliver an interesting document to a transom-equipped newsroom, he might throw it over the transom and into the newsroom… sight unseen.

Today, there is a “digital transom.” It’s called e-mail and over the past two weeks we have been the recipient of a lot of documents thrown over that “digital transom.” Whistle-blowers and researchers — people we know and have trusted before — have been providing us with documents laying out what they saw as the failings of relief efforts, at all levels of government, in both political parties. We promised them anonymity in return for their help —a standard practice in modern-day journalism.

The documents have taken a lot of forms. There is the Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Response Plan, the never completed plan put together by a FEMA contractor last summer as a framework for dealing with a major hurricane striking New Orleans. There is the exchange of letters between Louisiana’s congressional delegation and the Office of Management and Budget this January — the one on the need for emergency funding of levee repairs and maintenance; the City of New Orleans’ very limited and general evacuation plans. There is also a PowerPoint presentation on the now-famous “Hurricane Pam” FEMA exercise that predicted with Nostradamus-like accuracy what would happen to New Orleans if a Category 3 or bigger storm hit the city. And finally there are lists of upcoming FEMA and DHS exercises showing how the threat of terrorism had trumped natural disasters in the minds of emergency planners, at least at the federal level.

We have elected to post those documents, raw and unedited, on (Click in the box on the right side labeled “Katrina Resources”), because they add to the research and understanding of what has taken place since Katrina struck. They can be viewed or downloaded. We have used much of the information in these documents on Nightly News, Today, MSNBC-TV, CNBC and here on

Why do our sources do it? For a variety of reasons. Some are angry and want us to see how “everyone knew” this was coming. Others do it for political purposes, to get an advantage: Democrats and Republicans, federal and local authorities. Still others just think a document is damn interesting and should be out there for the sake of discussion.

When these documents first arrived, they could not be found by searching Google or by online sleuthing. A couple of them are labeled “For Official Use Only” (FOUO), a government classification that tries to limit distribution of materials, mainly for bureaucratic reasons. (An FOUO document can be obtained routinely under the Freedom of Information Act.)

So why are we doing it?  It’s our belief that the public should have as much detail as they can on such a big story as Katrina. The Internet offers an opportunity unlike any other medium. It can offer the raw material of journalism as well as the finished product in a timely and comprehensive manner. (Our competitors can take a look as well if they want, but we’ve broadcast and published a lot of this, as mentioned, and are willing to take that risk that comes with sharing in the public interest).

With luck and if reason prevails, this won’t be the last time we will do this. A journalist is only as good as his sources — and resources. And a story is only as good as what a journalist can share with the public. In this case, and in others, we need to share a lot more.

Sept. 14, 2005 | 6:18 p.m. EDT

Back to the bayou

I've decided to go back to New Orleans. Nightly News will originate from the region Thursday and Friday evenings, as will our NBC News special coverage of the President's address to the nation tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. EDT. Tim Russert will join me there for political analysis... from our live location just blocks from where President Bush is reportedly going to deliver his remarks. We have some special coverage planned, including the first interview with the man who tried to warn an entire region of the power of the approaching storm... and ended up making exact predictions about the devastation. We'll post from there on Thursday.

Sept. 14, 2005 | 4:23 p.m. EDT

Coping with the bodies

A few thoughts at the top: this was the night we were going to take time on the broadcast to address the increasing number of e-mails (and anecdotal comments) from viewers asking what's been going on in Iraq this whole time. Events have answered that for us. One of the things we're going to report tonight, as perverse as it is: the notion that the terrorists themselves feel their own insurgency has been overshadowed... bumped off newscasts and front pages... by the aftermath of Katrina.

We'll of course devote a substantial amount of the broadcast to that aftermath: including the effort to police the bodies on the streets. Watching today's FEMA press conference, it was clear that dignity in dealing with the bodies is paramount, and Baton Rouge Coroner Louis Cataldi (who was one of the few medical professionals in the Superdome, treating patients, doing triage and caring for the bodies... all with 1800's technology) has always struck me as a sincere and caring professional.

But the effort has taken so long. I remember the body we passed by more than once within view of the Superdome, an apparent murder victim. I remember the Homeland Security official who was personally led to the body by our cameraman... who said there was nothing he could do about it. I remember the body outside the Ritz Carlton Hotel... I remember the bodies floating by face-down in the water. Back then, in those frantic and lawless early days of the crisis, the living were preoccupied with their own continued survival. The sight was horrifying then, and has lost none of its impact with the passage of time. All officials can do now is try to be sure that positive IDs are determined and the deceased are treated as we would want our own family members treated.

The President will come on the air from New Orleans tomorrow evening with a 40-percent approval rating. Tonight Tim Russert will join us to look at the political backdrop. We'll be back in New Orleans very shortly. As they say: attention must be paid.

Sept. 14, 2005 | 2:07 p.m. EDT

Images from New Orleans (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)

Dozens of Nightly News staffers remain deployed throughout the Gulf states, covering the stories you see every night on the broadcast. NBC News Producer Marisa Buchanan took the photos you see to the left while working on a story in New Orleans. She promises to blog about the experience when conditions permit and will share other images as she can.

Sept. 14, 2005 | 11:54 a.m. EDT

Taking the country's pulse (Elizabeth Wilner, NBC News Political Director)

When events of national significance occur, many of my NBC colleagues pack bags and run — literally, in this latest case — toward the eye of the storm. Those of us who cover politics, poll.

America has gotten hit just about every which way in the past two-plus weeks. A hurricane has devastated the Gulf Coast; killed hundreds if not thousands; inspired millions of dollars in charitable donations and countless acts of volunteerism; sparked national debates about class, race, and the environment; caused record (if temporary) gas prices and fuel shortages; prompted the rare resignation of a Bush administration official; and opened the floodgates in Washington for unprecedented government spending on relief. The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court also passed away. We marked the four-year anniversary of September 11, 2001. Temporarily taking a back seat to news here at home, but never far from people's minds, was the war in Iraq.

As conscious as we are of all the events that have transpired recently, that still seems like quite a list.

Time to go into the field, as our pollsters say, and see how the country is holding up. NBC and our polling partner the Wall Street Journal last conducted a national survey in mid-July. Back then it was London, not the United States, that was reeling from a catastrophe; the U.S. government was predicting you'd pay an average $2.25 per gallon of gas through September (which at the time seemed high); and no one had ever heard of John Roberts.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then — not only the monumental events of the last few weeks, but an August of escalating violence in Iraq. So with the help of our polling team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, tonight we'll give you a sense of how the country is feeling. Sorry, no hints here. But Williams and Russert will give you the headlines, which will also run on at 6:30 p.m. EDT (link). Thursday morning, you can find get an in-depth look in The Wall Street Journal (link, subscription required) and in NBC's First Read, also on

Sept. 13, 2005 | 4:40 p.m. EDT

Did Bush blow it, as reported in Newsweek? (link)

It was sobering to hear last night that a body was found five blocks from where the President drove through the French Quarter. While this is a story of resignations and blame, the massive relief effort and mea culpas... it's also so important to remember that the worst fears of some families are still being confirmed with each new discovery, long after the hurricane passed over the region.

Of special note this week is the journalism of Evan Thomas (and the others listed at the end of the magazine's massive effort this week) in Newsweek. Of particular note in our business is the part of the story that deals with how the President learned what he learned about the crisis. Thomas reports that he was given a DVD compilation of the evening newscasts to watch on board Air Force One on his first trip to the region. The President told me the last time I spent time with him that he does not watch the evening newscasts (an aide reminded him that a videotape compilation is brought to the residence each evening should he desire to watch) and prefers instead to watch ESPN or "any baseball game" on television, in season... (I'm honor-bound to point out that after getting home from work some evenings, I've found that exact programming to be the perfect tonic during normal times). After so many Americans wondered aloud if their government officials were watching the same coverage they were of this crisis, the Newsweek reporting would indicate the President had other matters occupying his time, and was NOT seeing the blanket coverage that had so many Americans riveted to their televisions and consumed in sadness and anger. And so he received an audio/visual briefing en route that presumably helped him understand the scope and human dimension of the storm damage and the response.

On this particular evening newscast tonight, we'll have a special profile of the man sitting across from the nominee this week: Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. It's a revealing interview (sharp-eyed viewers will note it was conducted pre-Katrina, as the Senator has grown more of his hair back since then, post-chemo) and we found it a very revealing conversation. We'll hear from David Gregory on the President's claim of responsibility today, Tom Costello has some fresh reporting from New Orleans, and Pete Williams will head up our coverage of the Roberts hearings.

Beyond that, the pieces are still in motion here, and it became clear at today's afternoon editorial meeting in particular...that the stories yet to do are staggering. Just as we will head back to the region soon, there is work for all of us. Enough to fill the days, weeks, months and years ahead. But first, there's tonight's broadcast... we hope you'll join us.

Sept. 13, 2005 | 4:06 p.m. EDT

Still smiling at the White House

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell
NBC's Kelly O'Donnell

The White House beat can on many days be an exercise in multi-tasking. So many subject areas intersect here... not only topics, but tone... from the deeply serious to the light-hearted.

Today's East Room event with President Bush and Iraqi President Talibani makes the point. Both leaders spoke with a certain gravitas about the "new democracy" in Iraq and the sacrifices made by U.S. servicemen and women... the kind of remarks that sometime wind up in history books.

But on another level, there was a playfulness in the room. The President will from time to time wink at someone in the gallery (it's hard to tell to whom that wink is intended) while a foreign leader is speaking. He did so today. Mr. Bush also injects humor in the regal setting. Today, after an Iraqi journalist asked President Talibani, who had just spoken at length in good English, a question in Arabic, President Bush kidded his guest saying "You might want to try it in English." A round of laughter followed and then to the President's surprise, Mr. Talibani did not follow that advice and launched into Arabic. With almost a comic's sense of timing, President Bush quietly said "oops" and looked a bit sheepish. After Talibani's extended answer, that seemed even longer because no translation service was provided, President Bush offered up "I'm not sure if I agree or not," cueing still more laughter. Off to the side, two members of the Iraqi delegation were whispering Arabic to English translation into the ears of Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Often when a foreign visitor does not speak or is not fully comfortable with English, headphones are passed out with a simultaneous translation. But not today.

More serious questions and answers followed and then another surprise: Kurdish. A journalist asked a question in Kurdish, and almost apologetically, the Iraqi president turned to Mr. Bush seeking permission to respond in Kurdish. Mr. Bush readily agreed, giving the president his final punch line. When the answer very few in the room could understand was complete, Mr. Bush said, "On that cheery note, the press conference is over."

The men shook hands and smiled but still one more unexpected moment followed. As the leaders were heading out, backs to the assembled journalists, a veteran correspondent gingerly shouted "Did you cut the budget for translators?" President Bush typically rebuffs any shouted question but today that elicited a broad smile and a turned head as if to say "good one."

Editor's note: Kelly O'Donnell and David Gregory, NBC's White House correspondents, answer your e-mails each week. Click here to watch and submit a question.

Sept. 13, 2005 | 2:46 p.m. EDT

Tonight on Nightly News (Rob Merrill, Daily Nightly editor)

In the confusion following Hurricane Katrina's onslaught, young children were separated from their parents. Now, feverish efforts to reunite them are paying off. Tonight, we'll share the stories of kids who were lost and feared dead as they return to the loving arms of Mom and Dad.

| 4:51 p.m. EDT

The President, the Court and the Captain

We heard from the President this morning in New Orleans. In response to a question about his expression of surprise when the levees broke in New Orleans... he seemed to indicate that the initial post-Katrina media reports spoke of the city having "dodged a bullet." Since I've wondered myself (but haven't had time until today) about what we reported on that first day (our second day in New Orleans) about the damage we saw and could report... today I looked up the transcript of that evening's Nightly News. And while the President is correct in that those very words were spoken in the broadcast, it was also early in the timeline, and since we had all just emerged hours earlier after the worst of the winds... we were still in the early stages of summing up the damage.

The broadcast that night called New Orleans "battered and soaked"... we reported that it looked "like a bomb went off downtown." Martin Savidge said "the real story of Katrina has only just begun." He noted that people in the city were emerging "to assess the damage...(and) find the water is rushing in." Martin also said that the damage elsewhere, in neighboring states, a result of a last-minute turn to the right by the hurricane, spared New Orleans "from disaster." Carl Quintanilla reported "the city's historic district was hit hard in some ways, and dodged a bullet in others."

That was the letter and spirit of our reporting that first night, at 6:30 p.m. eastern time. In some ways, the argument over the response goes like this: our early assessment is now immaterial. Critics of the administration (and the mayor and the governor) say it's what happened AFTER the levees broke... the lawlessness, the total lack of information and the fact that Americans were going without food and water... that is the basis for judgment in hindsight. But I wanted to at least review the record in light of the President's comments.

I write this initial section while on the set of Nightly News (these book-length postings must begin early in the workday) while we are on the air on MSNBC with the Roberts hearings. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., put aside some business and came out of the box at 12 noon and the hearings, at the time of this writing, haven't stopped for air since. As we say in the newsroom, "at any other time" this would be the dominant story of the week. While we'll cover these hearings thoroughly, they will still likely fall below our headline coverage of the day out of the Gulf region. As a court buff, I've enjoyed the research during this run-up period: Roberts opinions make for interesting reading... and his intellect (as I think all would agree) is impressive to behold from afar.

About the broadcast: the resignation late this afternoon of Michael Brown as head of FEMA is the first administration casualty from the storm. That will drive tonight's broadcast, along with the President's trip to the region... and the continued misery there. We're still aligning our story order due to late developments (among them this power outage in L.A.) so the lineup is loose as we post this.

Two personal notes: First, my thanks to fishbowlNY for their thoroughly detailed assessment of last week's "audience" with Jon Stewart. This story makes our passions run high, and I must say this last visit differed greatly from my past trips to Jon's studio... but then again the mood these days is vastly different, and Jon was genuinely interested in fact-finding beyond what he'd seen on the coverage. Like many Americans, I also think he's angry.

Second: I've spoken about the hold that the New Orleans story has over all who have touched it... how it dominates your thoughts when you're not there... and how the memories of the dead and displaced are all now fixtures in the lives of those of us who feel we played even tangential roles in it all. With that as the backdrop, one event in particular this past weekend was perhaps the perfect antidote: I was honored to stand as Best Man for my friend Michael Spratford. When we met in 1976, I was a "probie" (probationary member) at the firehouse where we both served in our town on the Jersey Shore. Mike was a lieutenant, and we quickly became running mates. The son of a plumber, Mike was, by day, an auto mechanic at Adam's Amoco who had big dreams. He went on to sail through Monmouth College and today is a sales executive. Years ago, Mike survived a brain tumor and subsequent surgery that few live to tell about. While his motto was always "life's too short," I'm not sure he knew the true meaning of that back when we entered burning buildings with youthful abandon and spent our paychecks on Friday nights at Jersey shore bars. Mike's wedding also meant a chance to re-unite with my former Captain, Bruce George. He learned leadership in the military and passed it along to us. Like all the young guys in our small volunteer engine company, Mike and I both craved the Captain's approval... and all of us (quite literally) watched each other's back. Together, they are two of the best men I've ever known. While tempered by the tragedy in the Gulf... and while the date (September 11th) and the location (just down the beach from what used to be a stunning view of the Trade Center towers) were both sobering, it was a good day.

Back to reality: We're making plans for another return visit to the Gulf region. I've been telling friends that I strongly suspect we'll be "commuting" between our New York headquarters and that region for months to come. And of course we are duty bound to continue to cover the stories of the living and the dead... the people who made us care in the first place.

We hope you can join us tonight.

Sept. 12, 2005 |

Riding out Katrina (Michelle Hofland, MSNBC correspondent)

Editor's note: Michelle shared this story with Brian when they were both in New Orleans covering Katrina. He invited her to blog about the man she met there.

When I arrived in New Orleans the night before the hurricane, tourists sipped martinis in my hotel bar on Canal Street and ice cold beer on Bourbon Street. A valet parked my car and a chef prepared my meal. Air conditioning, hot water, lights.

48 hours later, it was all gone.

In its place… Devastation, desperation, chaos. Mothers pleading for baby formula and clean water, diabetics begging for chilled insulin, elderly couples begging to be rescued from their flooded homes.

Five days, one shower and a million live shots later… I spotted a freshly shaven man strolling down Canal Street. He looked and smelled so much different than the rest of us. His name was Roux (sounds like shoe) Merlo. A colorful name, perfectly suited for this colorful man.

How did he get here? Roux had just stepped off a rescue boat.

For five days, he camped in the second floor of his mother’s mid-city home… surrounded by water.

Roux says he always dreamed of riding out a hurricane. He prepared. He filled the bathtub, bought four cases of water, boxes of food, turned on his battery-operated TV and settled in.

He never dreamed the wild ride through the winds and rain of a category four hurricane would be the easy part of his adventure. As the home began to fill with water he moved furniture to the second floor.

Roux tracked his odyssey on a calendar. Each morning, a bath and shave. Day one, inflate a mattress. Watch news. Day two, tour neighborhood in his floating mattress, a broom as his paddle. A friend motors by, delivering fresh food, water and cigarettes from a grocery. He begins to see rescue boats. He ducks. He’s not ready to leave. Day three he paints a message on a sheet: "God bless New Orleans. I love you Mom, Roux." Day four, a trip to the roof to display his message. He spots a cavalry of rescue boats. Roux turns on his radio and hears the president is flying overhead. Day five, the stench from his double-bagged garbage is unbearable. He won’t litter. Supplies are low. Batteries for the TV and radio are also running low.

It’s time to leave. The first rescue boat comes by, but Roux is not packed yet. He accepts the second offer. The small boat meets up with a larger boat… too many to rescue from the toxic flood waters. Roux sees people ducking out of sight inside their homes. He yells and pleads with an elderly woman in a wheelchair, begging her to come out. She refuses. Another house, another elderly woman. He pleads with her to come out. She reluctantly concedes. The boat captain can’t open her door… the wood is too swollen. He climbs to the second floor balcony. Breaks through a window and carries her to the boat.

A mother with young children on a smaller boat joins Roux and the other evacuees. They are afraid, upset and confused. But Roux says after a time they relax and realize leaving is the right decision. Roux guesses half he sees want to leave. The other half refuse.

Once the boat is filled with evacuees, the captain delivers his passengers to the water's edge on Canal Street.

Roux always dreamed of riding out a hurricane.  He never dreamed that hurricane would transform his town into a nightmare.