Tuesday, September 6, 2005

'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for September 6

Guest: Sean O'Brien, Bernard Kerik, Asa Hutchinson

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


MAYOR RAY NAGIN, NEW ORLEANS: It's going to be awful, and it's going to wake the nation up again.


OLBERMANN: The body count. What officials know they are keeping to themselves. What they are planning for is the stuff of nightmares.

Inside the disaster portable mortuary unit.

A city's grief. One-quarter of the policemen are gone, two are dead, by their own hands. And the searching still continues.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there anybody that needs help? Hello?


OLBERMANN: The ebb and flow. Sixty percent flooded now, not 80.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the water is still continuing to push right back into the lake out of the flooded areas.


OLBERMANN: The investigation. The president resists one by Congress, says he'll lead one, decries the blame game, seemingly starts to play it.

And Michael Jackson? How has he inserted himself into this story?

The king of pop goes culturally tone-deaf.

This is Countdown.

Good evening.

It is of microscopic importance amid the realities of our Gulf Coast crisis, but the symbolism is inescapable. A foreign country's people so moved by the plight of New Orleans and Alabama and Mississippi that it is sending 100 doctors and nurses, along with a food supply, to the area.

That country is Thailand, where nine months and 11 days ago, that nation was just beginning to deal with the tsunami and the estimated 11,000 lives it claimed in Thailand alone.

Our fifth story on the Countdown, the water is receding in New Orleans. Now the question is, how horrible will what it has so far concealed turn out to be?

An answer contained in a procedural decision at the morgue opened outside the city. Unidentified victims will be buried. In other words, there will be unidentified victims.

A full eight days after Katrina, tour through town, very few bodies have been recovered from the waters of New Orleans. The focus still, keeping folks alive, and doing that requires getting them to leave, the holdouts either reluctant to depart or adamant that they will not.

The news more encouraging along those breached levees, the gaps finally sealed, and a few pumps now running, the Army Corps of Engineers saying it will take three weeks to three months to drain all of the water.

What is in the water is a frightening question. Health officials confirming today it's full of E. coli, oil, gasoline, and a nasty bacteria that is a cousin to cholera. More on that later with Dr. Bernadine Healey, everyone mindful of the fact that there are also bodies in the water. Once it recedes, identifying victims may prove impossible. DNA sources, like combs and toothbrushes, ruined in the flood, as were dental records.

A figure just out tonight on how much is being spent per day on disaster relief, $2 billion per day, according to a congressional source familiar with the process, speaking to MSNBC News.

Many words but little progress today in the blame game over who failed to do what when in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the president saying for the first time today that there would be an investigation, but refusing to set a timetable for when we might expect it to begin.

We will have four experts join us tonight about the response, about the police, about the rescues, about the prospects of epidemics, and three reporters about the tipping points of one week ago today, about the grim place the town of Saint Gabriel, Louisiana, will shortly take in our collective consciousness.

And first tonight, in New Orleans, correspondent Michele Hofland.

Michele, good evening. I understand that you went by boat into some of the more inaccessible areas in the city today. What was that like?

MICHELE HOFLAND, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: We wanted to see what it was like in some of these areas that you could only get to by boat, some of the things that perhaps the rescuers or the recovery teams will see once the water recedes.

Went into a memorial hospital, which is on Napoleon Inn and here in New Orleans. And when they got inside, it looks as if time has stood still. Down in the basement, it's completely filled with water. Perhaps that's where the generators are, because beside the first and second floors of the hospital, it looks as though the people there at the hospital, the nurses and the doctors, were trying to care for the patients, while they still had powers. There's fans, there's electrical cords and things like that.

Then our crew went into a door that had a sign that says, "Do Not Enter." They opened it. It's the chapel. Inside, we counted 13 bodies, covered with sheets, set up in a respectful manner. There's a Bible open up in front of the chapel, and it looks as though someone has performed a memorial service for these people.

Our crews only went into two areas of this hospital, Keith, and two floors and a small little part of these floors, and they counted 17 bodies inside the hospital, most of them covered with sheets. They said the stench was absolutely horrific.

And this is a very grim picture, but this is certainly a picture that's going to be repeated over and over as recovery teams go inside these buildings.

OLBERMANN: Symbolic of that, I understand that one of our cameramen was our friend Tony Zimbado, who, of course, brought that epic and unbelievable witnessing to the desert island of stranded folks at the Convention Center last week. Is Tony all right after this, now, this second episode?

HOFLAND: No. No. He said that's the last time he's going to do something like that. Well, he said that was the last time. And then shortly after that, he went to the Convention Center and walked in there and went into the cooler, the ice, the cooler in there, and saw a number of bodies inside the cooler, a number of bodies outside the cooler. That hasn't been touched since all those thousands of people left there last Saturday.

OLBERMANN: The grim realities amid the touches of good news. Michelle Hofland for us again in New Orleans. Great thanks, and please give our best to Tony.

Reporting from that city and others, like Gulfport and Biloxi and Mobile, continuing to be exemplary, and also continuing those moments in which a reporter can only get in the way.

From the streets of New Orleans and Gulfport and in the air above the Crescent City, rescues, unchanged water levels, grim searches, and the infuriatingly inexplicable mandatory evacuation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE)? What's this? Is there anybody else down that way that you know of?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE), do you see those (INAUDIBLE) store there, (INAUDIBLE) stuff down there? Got a bunch of people now. It's a truckful going to the coroner down there.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have a dead body in the building.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you know her?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What happened to Mrs. Jones?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She's on oxygen, and her husband say he called all week to Lincare, and he didn't get no answer. And we went in there to check her, and her lips was purple and her hands was cold, and she died.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then there's still some people that don't want to leave, and they found a few dead bodies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that becoming a problem, people don't want to leave?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think so, because the military's providing them with plenty of food and water. So it's the ones who need medication and things like that, who have, you know, medical problems that need to get out, so...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of dead bodies?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've only seen a few today, so...

We're moving, sir.

J.T. ALPAUGH, HELINET AVIATION: And we're looking at the football stadium here that we've been looking at, the gates, the water levels. And it is absolutely the same. We, it has not changed, and little at all. And we showed you this yesterday. This is the water still continuing to push right back into the lake out of the flooded areas.

Workers now have a - have a thoroughfare to walk completely by this levee break and continue to - which is - the levee is not broken any more. It is now shored up and completed. (INAUDIBLE) to show you the entire stretch that was built here. You can see on the left and on the right where the wall stopped. That's how large that levee break was. He comes in, he's going to drop it right into that smoke area as we push in just a little bit to show you this. Right overhead, pulls that trigger on his (INAUDIBLE), and drops the water away.

Want to stay with the water as we push back in, Dave, and to show you how it just douses that fire. Can see there are also ground fire personnel within this fire fighting it on the ground with hoses. The water droppers, with these, putting these (INAUDIBLE)-loaded (INAUDIBLE) bucket water drops into this, into these fires have definitely made a very quick work, quick look at this fire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're still in rescue mode and rescue operations, and we are still looking for people. That's our main priority above everything else.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm from Berlin, New Hampshire, up in the White Mountains, and I come down here to help everybody get their lights back on, make a lot of money.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This morning, the military just come and told us, we can't, when we leave, we can't go back home. We got air, we got electricity, I got bottled water stacked to the ceiling and just bought groceries yesterday. Now, they say we can't go home. But they say, Come to the mayor and get a pass. Mr. Mayor, where are you? Now is the time when people actually need you, man. Where are you? Just let me go home to my house, so I can watch my satellite dish and lay in my air conditioning and eat my breakfast.


OLBERMANN: That triumph of bureaucracy over common sense in Gulfport is hardly par for the course. In New Orleans, the story has been the triumph of perseverance over enduring disaster.

U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot Sean O'Brien estimates that he and his team have rescued about 225 people in the last week, mostly from the rooftops of that city.

Lieutenant O'Brien joins us now by telephone from Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.

LT. SEAN O'BRIEN, U.S. COAST GUARD (on phone): No problem, sir.

OLBERMANN: Tell me about what the last week has been like for you and your crew.

O'BRIEN: Well, as you know, the Coast Guard helicopters have been at the tail end of Hurricane Katrina. They were starting out hoisting in 50- to 60-knot winds, so it started out as a basic adrenaline rush. And my crew is the typical Coast Guard helicopter crew, and, you know, we were rescuing people mostly from the rooftops, apartment complexes and hotels.

And the one thing I wanted to say is that all the people from New Orleans that we - were extremely gracious and brave and heroic, and there was even one man we had to evacuate, the Best Western Hotel near the lakefront. And he had 100 people in line. He had the men and women and children. He had the women and children first, and then we were to evacuate the men.

And he was just fantastic. He was just basically a hero. And then we found out that he put his wife and children on one of the first hoists, so I, you know, I hope that they got reunited later on.

So to answer your question, the beginning of the week was very rewarding. But by the end of the week, it started to become a little sad. We - what we would do is, we would come to a neighborhood that was flooded. And then what we would do is, we would just come to a hover, and we would wait for an arm or something to come out a window or an attic, and then we would basically put our rescue swimmer down and try and start hoisting those people.

So like I said, the beginning of the week was pretty rewarding, towards the end, it started, you know, started burning out your crews.

OLBERMANN: I imagine contributing to that, these stories that we hear of rescue helicopters being shot at. Can you make any sense of that? Do you have any idea why people would be even doing that?

O'BRIEN: Well, sir, what would happen is, you know, during the end of the days and at nights, we would get a call on the radios that would basically say, All aviation assets doing rescues, there's been shots fired at a certain helicopter in this location, please avoid those locations.

And what we would do is, we would just continue on rescuing the people that needed to be rescued.

As to why, I think there's was just so much confusion and chaos. And that's just a, you know, a few. I mean, the most of the people, the hundreds of people that we would rescue, were, you know, very brave and heroic, and, you know, the criminal activity of the few is just - I don't know, the bravery just outweighs that.

So I don't know why they would be doing that, but that's, that was kind of unnerving.

OLBERMANN: Well, I'm glad the majority of the stories, I think we would all be glad that the majority of the stories are so inspiring to you as a veteran of these things. Coast Guard helicopter pilot Lieutenant Sean O'Brien, great thanks for what you're doing, and great thanks for joining us tonight.

O'BRIEN: All right, thank you, sir.

OLBERMANN: Also tonight, the need to protect the protectors, the decimation of the New Orleans police force. Dozens could be dead. Hundreds are certainly not at work.

And although the pumps are now working, is it too late to prevent that stagnant water from becoming a Petri dish for an outbreak of fatal disease?

You are watching Countdown on MSNBC.


OLBERMANN: It's not talked about much, but disasters, natural or otherwise, invariably impact the suicide rate. They invariably reduce it. Haven't seen numbers in this country after 9/11, but in England, suicides dropped to about half the regular total. Suicide rates dropped during the First and Second World Wars. They dropped after the JFK assassination.

Thus it is so extraordinary and so heartbreaking to hear of two confirmed suicides in New Orleans in the last week, because they were policemen.

Our fourth story on the Countdown, the devastation was not limited to the civilians. More than a quarter of the city's peace officers are off the job. Sixteen hundred is the usual strength there. Deputy Police Chief Warren Riley says 400 to 500 are gone, some missing, believed drowned because they stayed in the city or in their homes, waiting for their shifts to start. Some have quit. It has been all too much for them. Most, it is believed, have become like the all-too-typical civilian. They are taking care of or looking for their families.


CHIEF EDDIE COMPASS, NEW ORLEANS POLICE DEPARTMENT: We were fighting odds that you couldn't imagine. We had no food. We had no water. We ran out of ammunition. We had no vehicles. We were fighting in waist-deep water that was infected and polluted. I have officers with infections from cuts.

See, this is the real story. You're hearing it from the person who's out there on the front line. We did everything we can, human possible, to protect human life. Not one of my police officers that was on that (INAUDIBLE) front line (INAUDIBLE) to the pressures that you're talking about.


OLBERMANN: In a crisis, police in crisis.

My next guest knows this subject too well. Bernard Kerik was police commissioner of New York City four years ago next Sunday, 9/11.

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.


OLBERMANN: Obviously, you lost 23 members of your force in those attacks, and the New York fire and paramedics lost 343. So in terms of numbers, there's probably no comparison regarding New Orleans. But in terms of morale, do you suspect that the situations are still comparable, because probably dozens of commands there were cut off, were on their own for days at a time last week?

KERIK: I think so. I think there's a number of different issues that they had to deal with. One, I guess first and foremost, you know, these people lived - these cops lived in New Orleans. Their families lived there. You know, who are you going to care for first? Who do you want to get out of harm's way, out of the danger zone? You want to take care of your family, your wife, your kids, mother, fathers, you know.

So I have to believe a lot of them were in the process of doing that.

I understand that a lot of the police officers may have walked off the job. And I - I am really - I'm not sure what that's about, you know, perhaps leadership issues. I don't know. I don't understand that.

But I think the other thing that people have to realize, police officers are human beings. And they're - they see things that the public does not see. And they have to see it, by trade. They have to go to work. They're going to rescue, they're going to help recover, and they're going to see things that the general public doesn't.

And it weighs hardly on the mind and, you know, the mental faculties of these cops. And, you know, you have to give them a lot of credit for what they're doing, for hanging in there, for coming to work. And it's going to be difficult times moving forward.

OLBERMANN: What do you do for them? How do you keep your peace officers as the rocks of a community when they are thinking, The community I knew does not exist anymore?

KERIK: Well, first and foremost, you have to make sure you get the resources they need to do the job. You have to make sure they have the right leadership. You have to make sure that you get psychological and psychiatric help in there immediately. The people that need to talk to somebody, you have to have somebody there for them to talk to.

These are things that we did after 9/11, just about made it mandatory that the cops in New York City talked to a psychologist, talked to psychiatrists. It's extremely important. Like I said, resources, leadership, try to take care of them in a way that you may not be taking care of others, because you have to depend on these people. They're going to be working 12 to 18, 20 hours a day, I would estimate, for the next six to eight to 12 weeks. So somebody has to look out for them, or they're not going to be able to do their job.

OLBERMANN: The mayor says he's giving them mandatory vacations in the week. He's going to rotate them all out for at least four or five days at a stretch. So that perhaps is a first step there. But one of the things that was supposedly impacting morale there, there was a fear that with a virtually empty city for a prolonged period of time, there will eventually be layoffs. Is it realistic? Does an empty city need 1,600 police officers?

KERIK: Well, I think they're going to need the cops there. And I wouldn't, if I was them, I wouldn't be worried about layoffs right now, because they have an enormous amount of work to do over the next several years, really. And, you know, if I was a police officer on the streets of New Orleans right now, I'd try to concentrate on the job that they have to do right now, worry about the future later.

But you know, I wouldn't get into layoffs and think about it, because right now, they have a lot of work to do, and it's going to keep them busy for some time.

OLBERMANN: I have to ask you before we go, a big-picture question on the overall emergency response. The House minority leader, Mr. DeLay, said today that disaster response is - quote here - "designed from the ground up," the implication in that being that whatever the shortcomings of the last week have been, the responsibility began in New Orleans. Do you, with your expertise in this area, agree with that?

KERIK: Well, you know, I would agree with a couple things. One, I would agree with what the president said when he said the response at the federal level was unacceptable. I would agree with that. But also, you know, you have to - this levee was in question for decades. They knew five days, six days in advance there was a category 5 storm.

In a post-9/11 world, did they have protocols to evacuate? Was there a mandatory evacuation call? Did they have buses lined up? Did they have food and water lined up? These are all things that crisis managers had this day and age have to have. And I think there may be a question whether that was done or not.

OLBERMANN: The former commissioner of the NYPD, Bernard Kerik.

Thanks again for your time tonight, sir.

KERIK: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: Thousands of National Guard troops now deployed in and around the affected areas. As we wonder about the response to Katrina, are we leaving the rest of the country vulnerable in the event of another disaster? The former deputy chief of homeland security will join us.

And in the 19th century, New Orleans had a macabre history of contagion. So when the word "cholera" was mentioned today, a very old nemesis reappeared there, the prospect of epidemics contained in those stagnant waters. Answers ahead on Countdown.

OLBERMANN: Let me correct and apologize for the verbal typo in the last segment. Tom DeLay is, of course, the House majority leader, not the minority leader. I'd like to give you a good explanation for it. There isn't one. I just (INAUDIBLE).

Meantime, the literal flood is receding. The figurative one is growing. (INAUDIBLE) questions over the government response or lack thereof in the area around Hurricane Katrina.

The former assistant of homeland security joins us.

The flood everyone expects but no one hopes to witness, the bodies. The Louisiana town that will help put names, hopefully, to the victims of Katrina.

And the flood of health concerns, the dangers lurking in the contaminated waters in a city with a long history of epidemics.

Countdown's coverage of the long recovery from Katrina continues.


OLBERMANN: Former President Bush may have already excoriated the media for participating in the - quote - "blame game," but, in our third story on the Countdown, it's evident the current commander in chief may be easing on to its playing field.

First came the visit to Louisiana yesterday that went initially unannounced to the governor of that state, today, the president promising he would lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong.

The first area of inquiry he mentioned - quote - "the relationship between the federal government and the state government and the local government when it comes to a major catastrophe."

But blaming the cities and states here may or may not stick. The embattled head of FEMA, Michael Brown, said he was - quote - "impressed with the evacuation of New Orleans." And he added, "FEMA had planned for this kind of disaster for many years, because we have always known about New Orleans' situation." Mr. Brown made those remarks a week ago Monday, August 29, before the levees broke and the city flooded.

Our chief investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers, has been trying to pinpoint just what went wrong and when.


LISA MYERS, NBC CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Some 200 New Orleans school buses sit underwater, unused, enough to have evacuated 13,000 people. Why weren't those buses sent street by street to pick up people before the storm?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're stranded. Where are we going to go? They ain't letting us - we ain't got no ride.

MYERS: This draft emergency plan obtained by MSNBC News calls for 400 buses to be prepared to evacuate victims. Yet, some 200 buses were left abandoned in Katrina's path.

GREG SHAW, DISASTER MANAGEMENT EXPERT: So, that's a real tragedy that these resources were not employed, because it would have been good to get those people out of the city.

MYERS: Today, the mayor would not comment.

On the federal level, clearly, the arrival of the military has helped. But why did it take so long? On Wednesday, an Army officer said the nation's elite rapid deployment group, the 82nd Airborne, had 3,500 soldiers and 30 helicopters ready to be in New Orleans within hours. Yet, they arrived only yesterday. Today, the Pentagon was defensive.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Not only was there no delay. I think we anticipated, in most cases, not in all cases, but in most cases, the support that was required and we were pushing support before we were formerly asked for it.

MYERS: A persistent unanswered question, why didn't the military just drop pallets of water to those stranded in various locations?

GUNNAR KLEIPPER, DISASTER MANAGEMENT EXPERT: This was an inexcusable failure of the government.

MYERS: One huge bottleneck in the evacuation, the New Orleans Airport.

(on camera): Officials say flights were delayed while screeners and air marshals were flown in to comply with post-9/11 security requirements and then further delayed because screening machines were not working. Finally, someone at Homeland Security signed an order to allow evacuees to be screened by hand.

(voice-over): So far, there are many more questions than official answers about the delays and the failures on the state, local and federal level that critics say made this catastrophe even worse.

Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.


OLBERMANN: Let me bring in now the former Undersecretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson.

Thank you for your time tonight, sir.


OLBERMANN: Mayor Nagin of New Orleans told a story. The first time he told it was last Tuesday. It was a week ago. In retrospect, it looks like the first domino that tipped forward the wrong way, that, when the levee breaks were detected in New Orleans, that decisions were made to immediately drop as much weight in sandbags as could be brought in by helicopter, but that, at the last minute, the choppers were diverted without the mayor's knowledge for rescue operations.

To your knowledge, is that story correct? And, if it is, would immediate action at the levees last Tuesday have reduced the flooding and the inundation of New Orleans that followed?

HUTCHINSON: I don't understand the answer to that. And, certainly, those are the kind of questions that will have to be answered as time goes on.

Certainly, whenever you look at the judgment calls at the time, you're looking at the potential loss of life, rescue operations. You're also looking at trying to shore up the levee. This was an unprecedented disaster that was compounded by the breach of the levee, really the total collapse of the levee.

And, obviously, if you look back in hindsight, the military presence is what has helped to restore order. But no one anticipated the breakdown of law and order at a particular time. No one anticipated the quick need of the military. These are questions that have to be answered. But I hope that those questions will be - will wait at least until we get the people who are still in harm's way into a safe place.

OLBERMANN: But you can understand why that doesn't seem to be working out that way, and that we probably have a blame game on whether that is the media or politics or what, but it still is - it's out there, as much as we might not want it to be.

And there is much discussion of an interview that the British Broadcasting Corporation had with the Lieutenant Commander Sean Kelly of the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, who had told them that, speaking to the issue of the military being ready, that NORTHCOM was ready with nine million MREs - meals ready to eat, for those who don't know the acronym there - and also the USS Bataan, sailing behind the hurricane, in essence, ready to deploy the search-and-rescue helicopters the moment it was safe for copters to fly.

But Lieutenant Commander Kelly also said that - and I'm going to read the quote exactly - "We had things ready. The only caveat is, we have to wait until the president authorizes us to do so. We have to wait for the president to give us permission."

Why would that permission not have been immediately forthcoming if that need was evident from almost the beginning and the resources were in the neighborhood?

HUTCHINSON: Well, I think that was the key factor that you just said, almost from the beginning.

If you look at this hurricane being reduced from a Category 5 to Category 4 before it hit shore, you look even at the morning after, I recall listening on the radio, people still in the city glad that it was all over with. And so, clearly, the breaking of the levee changed everything. These decisions are not made unilaterally.

They are made jointly with the local officials and a consensus is generally arrived at. You can argue the federal government should have pushed harder to bring the military in quicker, force the evacuation more sternly. But these are joint decisions. I think this is going to be part of the review, as to whether that decision-making process needs to be streamlined and rectified.

OLBERMANN: But to the point of the way things changed - and those relate obviously to the head of FEMA's remarks, Mr. Brown, who was being quoted last Monday as saying he was impressed with the evacuation and that they planned for these things and were glad things had turned out as well as they had.

But just assuming that the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana had spit the bit in this situation, or everybody had prejudged the situation early, or they didn't make the right requests, they didn't put in the right paperwork, is it not within FEMA's power or Homeland Security's power to step in and say, you're screwing this up? We have to drop nine million MREs or sandbags at the levees?

What would the situation be like if the mayor or the governor had been swept away in the floods when the levee broke?

HUTCHINSON: Well, there is legal authority and precedents to do some of that.

But what we have always stressed at Homeland Security is that there's a partnership and there's a reason we call our state and local officials first-responders. They are first on the scene. They're there to do the day-to-day operations we support at the federal level. And so, it's a question as to how hard you want to push. Obviously, if you reach the judgment that there's going to be severe loss of life if these steps are not taken, you have got to push very, very hard.

But if you would have said the day before the hurricane had hit that we needed to have 75,000 emergency personnel zeroed in on this area to go in, people would have said, that is overreaction. But, obviously, that's what we have got right now, with the unprecedented response of the personnel there in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

OLBERMANN: Last question. And I'm sorry it has to be a fairly brief answer, but look forward for me. Where are we now if there's another high-impact hurricane this season? Is the Gulf Coast ready? Would Florida be ready? Would, God help us, New Orleans be ready?

HUTCHINSON: Well, obviously, the Gulf Coast is problematic. The destruction has been there.

But we can get ready. Obviously, from what we have learned here, we will be much more ready as a nation. And we have got to continue to improve our response capability. We're strained right now, emotionally as a country, but also resource-wise. And so we certainly hope that will not happen.

OLBERMANN: Asa Hutchinson, the former undersecretary of homeland security, great thanks, both for your time and your forthrightness tonight, sir. Thank you.

HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: One last note on the blame business. We can all agree, probably, that this is the worst possible time for grandstanding. Yet, they are out there, celebrities and commentators and others, for whom this is just another opportunity to open their mouths and swallow whole their feet.

Thus, we gently resume one of our nightly features from happier times, Countdown's list of today's nominees for the title of worst person in the world.

At the bronze level, Rush Limbaugh again. Amazingly, he was calling the storm on the air Hurricane Katrina Vanden Heuvel, after the liberal commentator of that name. I think Mr. Limbaugh has found a new doctor, if you know what I mean.

Also nominated, Michael Jackson, a news release today announcing - quote - "In response to the widespread devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, recording superstar Michael Jackson has been moved to pen a song with the working title 'From the Bottom of My Heart.'" He says he wants to make it into a new version of "We are the World."

Gosh. Thanks, Michael. New Orleans, of course, doesn't have any songs of its own already or anything.

But the winner, the incomparable Geraldo Rivera. He went out and rescued a 71-year-old woman on Sunday, escorting her and her dog to a heliport near the Convention Center, to great acclaim. Stephen Elliott in New Orleans, writing for Salon.com, reports that, after the woman was medevaced, a doctor took him aside - Elliott, that is - and told him - quote - "That's the second time he brought her in here." They did two takes. Geraldo made that poor woman walk from the FOX News van to the heliport twice, both times carrying her dog.

I'm guessing the second take was required, because, in the first one, Rivera had given away U.S. troop positions again. Geraldo Rivera, today's worst person in the world.


OLBERMANN: Hurricane Katrina and life and death, the town at the epicenter of accounting of all the dead, and the daunting task of reuniting those lucky enough to be alive, and preventing more disaster from a looming health crisis, all head on Countdown.


OLBERMANN: It may yet prove that, as New Orleans dries out, we will get nostalgic for the days when the floodwaters still covered up the dead bodies.

Our number two story on the Countdown, health and death in New Orleans. First the death. The town is about 70 miles to the northwest of the city, nearly all the way to Baton Rouge. And it is there in a converted warehouse that the state of Louisiana has set up, the disaster portable mortuary unit.

And, as our correspondent Kerry Sanders reports, neither the location's history, nor that name's symbolism seem to be coincidental.


KERRY SANDERS, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Saint Gabriel, named for the archangel, the Bible says, will one day trumpet the end of the word.

Now some in this small town wonder if the end of the world is coming to them. In truck after truck, Katrina's dead are arriving in Saint Gabriel, Louisiana, this cavernous warehouse now a makeshift morgue where federal teams are already working to identify the dead. They have come from across the country, pathologists, coroners, experts in fingerprinting, DNA and dental identification, some with experience from 9/11.


have a lot of professional folks here. Worse comes to worst, they can process about 130 to 140 individuals for a 24-hour period.

SANDERS: In some cases, DNA matches will be impossible because Katrina swept away many victim's hairbrushes and toothbrushes, often used to make a DNA match. Families will not be allowed into the morgue. But identification teams say each body will be treated with care.

DR. CORINNE STERN, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: These are all individuals. OK? These are our patients. And we treat them all with respect and dignity, just like any physician would treat their patients.

SANDERS: But some who live nearby are not happy Saint Gabriel was chosen for this task.

LORRAINE LONGUERRERO, RESIDENT: I don't think it's right. It's not good for us health. I don't know. They should have asked - brought the community to a meeting or something and then, you know, talked it over.

SANDERS: Others here understand, this work has to be done somewhere.

SUE BAKER, RESIDENT: I'm glad our community could come together and help these people. You know, it's the least that we can do.

SANDERS (on camera): In the early 1900s, a leprosy colony was established here and the clinic remains open today. This is not the first time this town has taken on a role other communities would shy away from.

Kerry Sanders, NBC News, Saint Gabriel, Louisiana.


OLBERMANN: And New Orleans has an unhappy history as well when it comes to public health. In the 19th century, yellow fever, spread by mosquitoes and capable of claiming its victims in 12 hours, hit the city almost annually.

The 1853 epidemic killed about 12 percent of the population. In 1867, another 3,000 people died, the same number in 1878. And cholera had swept through New Orleans in 1832, taking 4,340 lives. So, when authorities reported that some of the evacuees had contracted a milder form of cholera, historians and public health officials shuddered.

Among them, perhaps, Dr. Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institute of Health and an MSNBC analyst.

Dr. Healy, good evening. Thanks for your time.


OLBERMANN: Tell me about this more benign, as they described it, cousin of cholera and whether or not they should be really worried about it in New Orleans or elsewhere.

HEALY: Well, I mean, it is in the family of the cholera. It's a Vibrio vulnificus. It is not Vibrio cholera.

The difference is that cholera has a very powerful and poisonous toxin which literally that lets fluid just pour out of the patient. They can be dead in a matter of hours. And that's not what we're dealing with. We are dealing with a benign version of this bacteria, but it is one that cause gastroenteritis, can cause wound infections.

And if it is not treated, it can certainly cause a patient to become very ill and die, particularly if you have a problem with their immune system, Keith. But you have doctors on site. They're alert to it. They can treat it. It's antibiotic sensitive. And if people get dehydrated, you can tank them up with fluids, if necessary, intravenously.

OLBERMANN: But they can take these diseases with them? Am I understanding it correctly that this the sort of thing that could show up long after someone has been relocated out of New Orleans and seemingly to safety and also cleanliness?


Most of these gastroenterological diseases, these gastroenteritis, they show up within a matter of days, in terms of nausea and vomiting and diarrhea. These are not the kinds of things people are going to take with them. What they could take with them are some of the viruses, like hepatitis. And I understand the CDC has made a recommendation that all people who are in that water should be getting hepatitis A vaccines.

OLBERMANN: To the question of that water, and, obviously, that's the thing that the layman understands most readily and intrinsically. If the mayor is right and there are up to 10,000 bodies in New Orleans underwater or at the waterline or just sitting there, is the prospect of epidemic illness in the city itself increased at all? Because we didn't really see epidemic illnesses spiking after the Indian Ocean tsunami.

HEALY: That's correct.

And the fact is, the body that is submerged in water is not going to make that fetid soup any worse than it is. That is - it is more of an emotional, devastating and shocking thing for anyone to see, even in pictures, but it is not going to be an additional source of pathogens or microbes that are going to harm anybody who is in that water.

But believe me, Keith, there's enough bad stuff in that water that we don't need to have the dead bodies contribute to it.

OLBERMANN: Have they contaminated the freshwater system in the city?

Is it not going to be usable for a long period of time?

HEALY: I don't think we have a freshwater system in the city and I think that virtually all of that water has to be deemed as contaminated because of seepage of sewer water. And if anyone were in a situation where they were even going to think about using something out of the tap, they would have to boil it, a roiling boil, for many minutes.

It's not advised. Bottled water is the only way to go. And for about... and they shouldn't be washing their hands in it, for that matter, as well.

OLBERMANN: And that's why everybody has to leave. The former director...

HEALY: That's why they have to leave, yes, Keith.


Former director of the National Institute of Health, now an MSNBC analyst, Dr. Bernadine Healy, great thanks again for your time tonight.

HEALY: Thank you.

OLBERMANN: We know of 32,000 rescues since the hurricane. Add them to the other evacuees, and yet the communications gap is only growing. We will try to get the message out for some of those.

That's next. This is Countdown.


OLBERMANN: Some late symbolism from New Orleans tonight, some light at the end of the tunnel.

These are pictures of downtown, the Hilton Hotel. Those are lights, the first seen there in more than a week. We do not know if the source is a surviving part of the electrical grid or a generator. But at least three hotels have lights tonight, although it looks like the T. is out.

The International Red Cross has established a Web site, the one that seems most heavily trafficked in which people displaced by the hurricane can post their whereabouts or those looking for the evacuated can post inquiries. As of yesterday morning, there were 65,000 names registered, a majority seeming to be from those searching.

As of this morning, the total had jumped to 94,000 names. Our number one story on the Countdown, in an age of instant communication, the constant disconnect seems only to be growing as the crisis continues.

So, again, our nightly meager contribution to narrowing it, putting cameras in front of those who need to tell distant loved ones they're OK or ask where those distant loved ones are.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is Barbara Deplant (ph). I'm looking for my brother Willie Macdougal (ph). He's an amputee. And if anyone knows where he is, please let us know.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is Ryan (ph). I just want to let you all you know that I'm in Beaumont, Texas. I'm all right. Me, Theresa, Wadell (ph) and Cameron (ph). So (INAUDIBLE) you see this, just call the Salvation Army in Beaumont, Texas, and let us know how you're doing and try to get in touch with us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Theresa Dennis (ph). And I'm trying to reach my daughter, Shantrel Williams (ph). I'm safe. We's in Texas. And I hope you could call us. And I love all my family.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm looking for my pregnant sister. She's five months pregnant. Last time I seen her was two days after the hurricane. I'm looking for my brother Freddie Maxwell (ph). And I'm looking for a few of my cousins.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Kelly Jolly (ph). I'm looking for some family members who may have been lost from New Orleans, Giovanni Drego (ph), Mary Shepherd (ph). Any of you all, can you all get in touch with me? I'm in Beaumont, Texas.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Asha Lloyd (ph). And I'm from New Orleans. And I'm looking for my uncle and my brother Alex Lloyd (ph) and my uncle Gene (ph). And I believe that they're up in the Astrodome, Superdome in Texas. And I love all you all. I'm looking for you all.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You're in - tell them you're in Pine Bluff.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I'm Pine Bluff, Arkansas, right now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Monique Bouvier (ph). We're looking for our brothers and our sisters. Our sister went to Baton Rouge. And we're looking for friends that sees this tape right about now.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Deanda Blake (ph) from New Orleans, Louisiana. I'm coming from the Superdome. I'm still missing two of my children, another grandson of mine, two sisters. I don't know if Marti (ph) made it out alive or well or not. But, in any case, if you all are seeing this, I want you all to know we're all right.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi. My name, Clara Dixon (ph). I'm in Beaumont, Texas. I'm looking for my three sons, Lodel (ph), Lindel (ph) and Laburt (ph). I'm all right. All I want you all to do is call and let me know you're all right. Love you all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Sherman Jones (ph). I'm looking for my father and my mother. My mom was a nurse for American Nursing. My dad stayed on 1606 Saint Rock Avenue. If you all know anybody that have seen these two, OK, you can reach me at area code 504-253-0469.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Benny Perro (ph). I want to tell my family in Clinton, Louisiana, I'm OK. My wife in Birmingham, Alabama, I'm OK. I will be home soon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My name is Vanessa Cletford (ph). I live in New Orleans. My daughter, she is on a boat. I have people in Houston. I'm OK.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Alvin (ph).

I want to tell my family and pray for a minute I make it out of this bad flood situation we have down here in New Orleans. I love you, kids. I love all my kin folk.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ati Marie (ph), mama (ph), we's all right. We's on Canal Street. We just need somebody to come get us, please. I don't have my insulin or nothing. I'm feeling bad. Thank you.


OLBERMANN: The network and the Web site now also trying to reconnect hurricane survivors and their loved ones throughout the day on TV and all the time on the Net. The Web site will explain, Countdown.MSNBC.com.

A final quick note. The president of NBC News, Neal Shapiro, told us today that he's stepping down, effective Friday. Countdown was his concept. And, for some reason, he trusted us with it and encouraged us at every turn.

So, thank you, Neal. And all the best. And, yes, I will stop wasting the viewers' time now.

That's Countdown. I'm Keith Olbermann. Good night and good luck.

Our coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues right now with "RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT" from Orleans tonight.

Good evening, Rita.

RITA COSBY, HOST, "RITA COSBY: LIVE & DIRECT": And good evening, Keith.