'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' for August 31
Guest: Zac Mathews, Michael Brown
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: The drowned city. As families move the injured and the elderly along the new canals of New Orleans, the city's mayor says there are dead floating alongside, hundreds at least, thousands probably. Twenty-three thousand are to become refugees, those at the Super Dome to be moved to Houston.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They told us to go to the Super Dome. If you want to be rescued, go to the Super Dome. All of a sudden, now they're telling us, Go to the bridge. We have very few resources. What are we supposed to do?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Some answered that question themselves. Looting.
Cleaning up in aisle five.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I got me some shoes, couple of (INAUDIBLE).
Trying to make sure (INAUDIBLE).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: The water pressure has equalized in the one levee break, but it'll be two or three days before the leak in the dam is plugged, two or three months before New Orleans is habitable.
And it is no better away from the big city.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU (D), LOUISIANA: What I saw today is equivalent to what I saw flying over the tsunami in Indonesia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Pass Christian, Mississippi.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE:... be dropped off at their cars. Let me know, and we'll drop them off.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thank God. I thank these guys too.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: Mobile, Alabama.
This is Countdown.
The water continues to rise in New Orleans, and so does the pervading sense of sad menace. The mayor says there are dead bodies floating in the streets, minimum hundreds, he reveals, most likely thousands.
And the looting seemingly increases too, its own story, and its own irony, because most of the people doing it don't even realize that nearly all they are stealing, they will have to leave behind as their city is evacuated.
Our fifth story on the Countdown, Hurricane Katrina, day four. The living beginning to be evacuated, the dead beginning to be counted, Mayor Ray Nagin becoming the first to approximate the carnage hidden in the drowned city. We do know, he said in early afternoon, there is a significant number of dead bodies in the water, minimum hundreds, most likely thousands.
In at least parts of New Orleans, the water is no longer flowing into the city at this hour, only because the water level has equalized with Lake Pontchartrain. Should there be more water in days to come, it too would become citybound. Rain right now would be very bad news indeed for New Orleans.
The Army Corps of Engineers hoping to dam the breach with sandbags weighing 15,000 pounds. No one has ever attempted to drop a 15,000-pound bag of filler from a helicopter before. That, like so much of what is unfolding in the Gulf Coast, unprecedented.
As for what helicopters are doing now, the search and rescue effort far from over tonight. The mayor says there are 78,000 people in shelters in New Orleans, 50,000 to 100,000 others in the city. They can probably evacuate 15,000 per day, once, that is, they get them out of their own homes.
Some are not waiting, choosing to brave the dirty water, taking with them whatever and whomever they can, however they can. The goal, to reach the Super Dome, where nearly 500 buses are to take some 23,000 evacuees to Houston, to another dome, the Astrodome. More on that in a moment.
First, the almost medieval quality life in New Orleans has assumed. The narration is by a flabbergasted pilot from Helennet (ph) Aviation, named J.T. Alpett (ph).
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
J.T. ALPETT, HELENNET AVIATION: - that an extreme amount of looting of this market. And you can see the people and all the products out in front. Not sure if these people are currently looting, or if there's anything left inside this market. But people camped out in front of this marketplace, and with what appears to be groceries and diapers and whole bags of goods.
There seems to be money being exchanged in some (INAUDIBLE). And it's a chaotic scene down here just north of downtown. I'm going to pull out and just show you some of the other activity here in the area.
If you come this way, you can see people with inflatable mattresses and using them as boats taking around. This gentleman here is going to put his inflatable mattress down. And we've seen them wading through the waters and picking up whatever they can find that they can make use of.
This is possibly an elderly woman that's very ill being transported on this mattress on the waterway by family members, possibly. She's got a cover - her face is covered from the hot sun. She is moving, so she appears to be conscious. And they are moving her, obviously an elderly woman with a cane right next to her. And they're pulling them up to what is the island that this Win Dixie (ph) market is on.
And just - the desperation that these people are going through and trying to stay dry and comfortable and moving. They're realizing that help is probably not coming anytime soon, trying to make the best of a very bad situation.
We are seeing scenes like this one throughout the city. This is a family that's stuck on a balcony here, an elderly gentleman and what appears to be his family, waving desperately at us, that we can, we can't help them. We can only advise to rescue personnel what's happening here. We see a woman with a head bandage waving.
It's an extremely desperate situation that we can't help with. Families just wading through these waters filled with filth right now. And this family has got an actual person being floated inside one of these orange containers that we showed you earlier floating back and forth. Now, this woman looks ill, and they're waving at us, and we can't help them. But this woman looks very ill, holding her stomach. And I'm going to push in so you can see her face. That's good right there. And the desperation, and she does not look well, as you can see, the expression on her face, holding her stomach.
And this is - right now, this is their mode of transportation. This is their mode of an ambulance, if you will, transporting their sick family member from one point in the disaster to another, people coming to help them with her.
Just a complete scene of carnage and desperation here, a very, very sad scene for these people.
OLBERMANN: J.T. Alpett With the picture from above.
We have talked about getting to ground level, but as the hours pass, that term seems to be less and less appropriate. New Orleans looks more and more like Venice, Italy, and its story sounds more and more like Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, or San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.
So let's go to water level, where our correspondent Steve Handelsman is standing by. Good evening, Steve.
STEVE HANDELSMAN, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Keith.
There's fire here on Canal Street too, maybe not as serious as the one in Chicago, but it just adds to the chaos and desperation here. We'll zoom in, and I'll tell you what you're seeing.
This is that famous avenue that runs just west of the French Quarter in New Orleans. Straight north from here, the whole thing is flooded. And you can see the smoke that's still coming out of that looted store that somehow caught on fire about four or five hours ago here on Canal Street. Police and fire units were unable to put it out. It would have been a 10-minute job just to hose it down in most American cities. But they've got power, New Orleans doesn't. And so the pumps have stopped. The hydrants are dry. The hoses are empty.
They had to figure out some way to siphon the floodwaters off the street and blast it into the store, and it took a long time. The good news is, the fire didn't spread. God knows what would have happened down here if that had occurred.
And there's other good news to report, Keith, amid all the bad and dismal news here in the Crescent City, and that is that at least the water's not rising. And that's not because man triumphed, it's just Mother Nature. They couldn't patch the dikes. They couldn't fix the levees, although they tried. And the flood pumping didn't do any good as long as the levee was breached, because this bathtub that's New Orleans was filling with water. They'd pump it out, it would just go right around and right in the broken dikes.
But now, they say, as the floodwaters of Lake Pontchartrain subsided some, and the water went back out to sea, where it had come from, being pushed ahead by Hurricane Katrina, that at least now, the water level of Lake Pontchartrain and the water level in New Orleans is the same. So no more rising floodwaters.
But Keith, the floodwaters here are so high that you've still got about 80 percent of New Orleans underwater. The mayor said he now figures at least hundreds of people in New Orleans have died in this disaster, and he figures as many as thousands may have died.
And so, as you've no doubt been reporting, the plan is, everybody leaves. Everybody. And they hope to try to get it underway in a major way tonight, though their planning has not proved to be, you know, effective in pretty much anything else they've done, Keith. But they say they've got hundreds of buses. They'll start with the Super Dome, that's got about 15,000 very unhappy, albeit safe, people, and try to get them to the Astrodome in Houston as soon as possible, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Steve, the levee breaks. As you mentioned, they have not been pinched off, but the pressure equalized, so at least it's not getting worse, unless it rains.
But the mayor said something about people messing up yesterday, that the 'copters that were going to drop the sandbags on the break in the 17th Street canal had been diverted for rescue efforts, and that, in his mind, that has stretched out the city's recovery time from at least two months to maybe three or more.
Is there - is that frustration speaking, or is there any indication that he's got that story correct?
HANDELSMAN: You know, you don't want to ask people here on the streets of New Orleans what they think of the mayor, Keith. You can just imagine what they say. We have no way to verify what the hydrologists will say about the mayor's theory that it could have been plugged at a certain time in a certain way by certain aircraft that weren't around because somebody else said they should go someplace else.
I can tell you this. It was a lot of fanfare that was attached to building of that levee system. It's the most recently built, multimillion-dollar system in an area that was thought to be vulnerable right on the northwest corner of New Orleans as it (INAUDIBLE), as it meets Medering, Louisiana, and Jefferson Parish right up by Lake Pontchartrain. Doesn't matter those names.
The important thing is, that's the place that was thought most vulnerable to overflow by Lake Pontchartrain. Everybody here called it the new hurricane levee, and it didn't work, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Steve Handelsman, who, along with the rest of our MSNBC and NBC News team in New Orleans, has been doing such good work under adverse conditions. Great thanks again, Steve.
Moving from the Super Dome in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston sounds like a sports franchise shift from the 1980s or 1990s. In fact, it is the first big step of something virtually unprecedented in American history, probably, too, in recent world history, declaring a major city, this nation's 35th-largest, officially uninhabitable, perhaps for months.
To get a sense of proportion and history, and what's going to happen, I'd like to call in the director of Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, Michael Brown.
Thank you for your time tonight, sir.
MICHAEL BROWN, DIRECTOR, FEDERAL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT AGENCY: My pleasure, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Is this evacuation process indeed unprecedented? I mentioned San Francisco and the '06 earthquake and Chicago and the 1871 fire. Neither of those cities was actually evacuated. Is this the first, to your knowledge?
BROWN: It is as far as I know, because, think about it, you know, the San Francisco earthquake and the Chicago fire, all of those things, were long before we had the kind of population density that we have now. And so when you think about 80 percent of New Orleans being underwater, it is an unprecedented event that we're undertaking right now.
And I think that everyone is looking at New Orleans, but from my perspective, remember, we still have Waverly, Mississippi. We still have Hancock County, Mississippi. We still have some effects in Alabama. We still have other places in Louisiana. This is one huge disaster of proportions not only geographically but proportionally, economically, socially, every possible way, this disaster has affected this country.
It's going to be a mammoth project to undertake.
OLBERMANN: To that point, do you have a proportion in your mind? You hate to reduce these things to numbers, but it helps people understand. Is it one New Orleans for one rest of the region? Or is it one New Orleans for two rest of the regions? Or do you have any idea, in terms of the overall damage and the overall disruption of life?
BROWN: I don't. But I can tell you it's is beyond anything I've seen in this country. Now, I traveled with Secretary Powell and Governor Bush last January to the tsunami region. And I remember thinking as the FEMA director then, how massive that was, and how overwhelming that was.
Little did I realize that I would find myself, you know, eight, nine months later, facing almost the same kind of thing here, but in a highly dense, populated area with critical infrastructure, things like power grids, you know, the grain system that goes up and down the Mississippi or the refineries, the entire socioeconomic problems that we're going to have just in New Orleans.
Plus, everything that I'm now facing in, you know, again, Mississippi and Alabama.
OLBERMANN: Are Mayor Nagin's estimates close, to your knowledge? He's got 78,000, he says, in shelters, as many as 100,000 others in the city, and he thinks he can get 15,000 out of town per day. Do those numbers sound reasonable and realistic to you?
BROWN: Well, we don't know yet, and here's why. Right now, we're focused primarily on lifesaving efforts, saving what people we can right now. Life-sustaining efforts of those that we've already rescued and are in either shelters or in the Super Dome or other places. And getting those people located somewhere in at least temporary housing, so we can take care of them on what's going to be a very long-term process.
I think the country needs to understand that. You know, in most disasters that I deal with, people can come back and at least see their damaged home, or they can get into a somewhat damaged home and start rebuilding. In New Orleans in particular, people are not even going to be able to get back into those places for at least a month or longer. And once they get there, those homes that have been underwater are not going to be repairable. They're probably going to have to be torn down and rebuilt.
That is an absolute disaster for those individual families, and I think the country needs to know that. The country needs to help us with managing these expectations, managing this process that's going to take a very long time to rebuild, as you said, the 35th-largest city in this country.
OLBERMANN: Yes, we have seen nothing like this before, in terms of shutting a place down and turning it off, and then hopefully turning it back on.
But let me ask you one last question. When you succeed in doing this, and obviously you will, and the people who are working on this will succeed, right now your primary goal, safety, as you said, life, recovery, all of that.
But in terms of the restart, of the rebuilding, what will turn out to have been the key? What should we watch? Is it the decontamination because of what is in that water that's standing in New Orleans right now?
BROWN: Well, I think it will be. I think it will be (INAUDIBLE) - you know, making certain that we get that water out. And that however we redesign to protect the city, I think, is going to be the key factor, because it's obvious that we can't just rebuild the levee and think that that's going to solve all the problems.
We've got to be smart. And as the president said to me this morning, you know, everything is on the table. No idea is too crazy to look at. No idea is too crazy to consider. That's my mission statement to my people here. We're going to look at every possibility.
OLBERMANN: Michael Brown, the director of FEMA, in Baton Rouge with us tonight. Great thanks for your time. Obviously all of us wishing you the easiest possible task under the circumstances.
BROWN: Thank you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Be well.
As emergency personnel work frantically to get everyone out of New Orleans, certain residents are working frantically to get everything off the shelves, paying optional. Other citizens, still stranded on top of rooftops throughout the city. Coast Guard choppers working so hard to try to get to everybody that the workers are refusing orders to take an occasional break.
We'll ask a pilot about the monumental task that faces them.
Countdown's special coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: It is an image that will live with anybody who saw it, an image at once tragic and comic and iconic.
Our fourth story on the Countdown tonight, looting, and the world's worst looter. He has opportunity and tools, yet the thing that he is throwing might as well have been made out of rubber, a symbol of frustration and of a lot else.
It's easy to dismiss the more successful looters as opportunistic criminals. It will be easy to be astounded by the video when we show it to you in a moment of people blithely looting a Wal-Mart and using the store's own shopping carts to carry off the merchandise.
But what exactly would you do trapped in a city in waist-high water where stores are closed, and social services have been washed away, along with your shoes?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because we're barefoot, and we're walking in the water, our feets is going to be cut.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All our shoes in the hurricane.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: From the law-and-order protection of property point of view, this is dangerous sentiment. From the practical viewpoint, there's nowhere to safely keep all the people who are obeying the law. Where exactly do you want to put the looters?
It may mean something else entirely, as Matt Lauer discovered this morning while interviewing Governor Blanco of Louisiana.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOV. KATHLEEN BLANCO (D), LOUISIANA: We don't like looters one bit. But one of our fears is that if we don't stop the breach, that we will put good people's lives in jeopardy, and they'll lose theirs too. So their looting will be for naught.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: And thus, through a looking glass of sorts, because, as we mentioned before, not only is looting being unofficially and grudgingly winked at for the time, but certainly most of the looters were, maybe still are, unaware that what they stole has an excellent chance of being swept away as the waters continue to rise. And if not, almost all of it will have to be left behind as New Orleans is evacuated.
Our correspondent Martin Savidge captured most extraordinary images of the looting at the New Orleans Wal-Mart, and he joins us now.
And Martin, all of that explanation having been given, that videotape is still one of the damndest things I've ever seen in my life. You too?
MARTIN SAVIDGE, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: It is, it is remarkable. You know, I sympathize, obviously, with the people who are looting, because, as you point out, this is a huge community in which there is no power, no electricity, there is no food, there is no water. There are whole families that are trapped. The water is rising around their homes. Should they have left? Yes, they should have left. Should they go breaking and entering? They shouldn't be doing that.
But they are desperate, and these are desperate times.
Now, the fellow who walked out with the large television, I have a beef with him, because, let's face it, there's no electricity either. So it's hard to justify that one.
But here's what we found when we stumbled across a Wal-Mart while walking around.
SAVIDGE: Well, are you doing it because you need it, or you...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE), yes. I mean, you know, we have no means to wash clothes, we have no food. Sure.
SAVIDGE: A lot of the people here say they don't feel bad taking the stuff, one, because they need it, but two, they said, the police said it was OK. And we actually saw the police. They're in aisle three.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold onto it.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How you doing?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. What are you doing here?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm doing my job.
SAVIDGE: Taking shoes?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, I'm looking for looters.
SAVIDGE: Looking for looters?
And what do you do when you find them? Because I think I see them.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDIBLE), that's all I can do with them right now.
SAVIDGE: They're all around us, though.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's what I see. Including you. What are you doing here?
SAVIDGE: I haven't taken anything, ma'am.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you're in the store.
SAVIDGE: They don't quite look your color.
SAVIDGE: OK. You know, one of the things that strikes you is, of course, the Wal-Mart is a store that everybody knows. And to walk in it and see it as a free-for-all like that is - well, you can't help but laugh sometimes, even though it is grossly against the law. To see the police, though, that was a shock.
OLBERMANN: Martin, do you suspect that that police officer that you encountered in there was not making up, making something up out of whole cloth, and that those people were also not making something up after - out of whole cloth, given what Governor Blanco said, that essentially, if it's nonviolent, they have other things to worry about than people stealing stuff?
SAVIDGE: That's true, they do, obviously. In a city where the mayor has just proclaimed that he believes there are hundreds, maybe thousands dead, the looting of one Wal-Mart does not rank very high on the Richter scale of problems.
However, when you have the police in there looting, that is a problem, because if the breakdown of law and order happens on the very first day after the hurricane, how far will it go in a couple of days?
OLBERMANN: We don't want to contemplate that question, and we're sorry that you have to. But where you are, you have to. Martin Savidge, in New Orleans after the almost-indescribable scene inside the Wal-Mart. Thank you, sir.
In Alabama, a first look at the coastal devastation there. Some areas still without any power. Others, though, now planning to clean up and open up in time for businesses to run on Labor Day weekend.
No chance of that in Mississippi. Beaches strewn with dirt, debris, even caskets, caskets washed out by the storm. The remarkable December instruction along the Gulf Coast.
Countdown's special coverage continues.
OLBERMANN: There is a remarkable word from one of the afflicted states. It's from Alabama. It's from the other side of Perdido Bay, but it's still only 50 miles from the Mobile area. The remarkable word is, reopening. Hotels, condos, restaurants, even golf courses in that area minimally damaged by Katrina plan to be back up and running for Labor Day weekend. They will have plenty of customers from the rest of the state.
Still no official tally yet of the obvious devastation in Mobile and the surrounding area. Police and volunteers began directing traffic in lieu of traffic lights disabled by power outages. Those outages incredibly widespread, 191,000 customers in Mobile alone, facing a prolonged period without power, according to the Alabama Power spokesman.
That figure rises statewide to 500,000. Among the debris brought in with the hurricane, the Ocean Warwick, an oil drilling platform. Sunday night, it was in the Gulf. Today, it is on the beach at Dauphin Island. In those parts of Alabama still comparatively passable, lines at gas stations stretching half-a-mile or more. One bit of good news on that front, the administration this morning announcing it will tap the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve to counterbalance the disruptions in domestic crude oil production.
The survivor stories, meanwhile, are not necessarily moments of joy. People in some of the affected areas are going home. Only, home is no longer there. And, in New Orleans, desperate pleas like this one, they're answered by the helicopter pilots from the Coast Guard. We will get the inside story of how you would rescue people like this when Countdown continues.
OLBERMANN: There's breaking news out of New Orleans. It does not pertain to disaster or flood, but to the looting story we brought you earlier.
The mayor of that city, Ray Nagin, has announced that he has ordered 1,500 members of the New Orleans Police Department to discontinue their part of the search-and-rescue missions to return to the streets of New Orleans to stop looting and other infractions.
To repeat that, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans saying that 1,500 police will be moved from search-and-rescue operations in the flooded city, the 80 percent flooded city, to instead work on what has become a massive looting problem, as Martin Savidge showed you earlier from New Orleans.
Meanwhile, if you had not seen the images, the town-by-town log of destruction in the Mississippi, it would seem like a mistake, something misfiled, something meant for an archive about bombing damage to England during the Second World War, Route 90 under inches or feet of sand, communications down, transportation systems demolished, and house in the middle of the road on Second Street in Pass Christian.
Our third item on the Countdown tonight, as extraordinary as these things sound, perhaps more extraordinary still, people have survived this. Yesterday, a county emergency executive said there were at least 100 dead in the Gulfport-Biloxi region. Now we learn search-and-rescue teams are still unable to reach about half the locations ravaged by the storm.
And even with the grim estimates from New Orleans, people have survived this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was in my house. And I was - see, I was in that house. I was praying. I was scared, because I stayed by myself. I live by myself. And the walls started getting hot, so I got on top of the chest drawer.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My husband is - stayed in Masters Point in Oak Harbor. And we just have no idea. We heard that there was a lot of water there. He wouldn't leave, which was so incredibly stupid. But - so, we're trying to find him, going from shelter to shelter and see if we can find him.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know where my mama and my sisters, my little nephews, my family, I don't know where none of them at right now.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
OLBERMANN: It is always better than the alternative, but one of the worst moments for the survivors repeated again and again is the return after the escape, the return to find that home is gone.
Our correspondent Lester Holt was a witness to one of those scenes today at Gulfport.
LESTER HOLT, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Anne Anderson (ph) and Vernon Lacour's (ph) journey home through standing water, over fallen trees and across shattered two-by-fours was a journey to the pieces of their lives.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You ready?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As ready as I'm going to be.
HOLT: They came to find their house, the one Anne's father built almost 60 years ago. Anne and Vernon heed the warnings and fled in the face of Katrina, confident, though, that this house that stood up to Camille in 1969 would survive.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here, dear. Is this anything?
HOLT: They came upon belongings, both cherished and familiar.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Just so little, that - anything means something.
HOLT: But the house that stood here is no more.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I expected to maybe have two feet of water in my house, because my house is 17 feet above sea level, so, if that gives you any indication of how high the water came. And to have demolished this house and all of these houses, I mean, we're talking catastrophic, I mean, off the radar.
HOLT: The soggy ground here is littered with the fragments of memories.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This little guy was around my pool.
HOLT: The thing stunned residents of this neighborhood are left with as they slowly come to grips with what nature has dealt them.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I consider myself somebody who is good with words. And I just - I'm at a loss. I mean, there's nothing. As far as you see in any direction, there's just absolutely nothing. And it just - it takes my breath away.
HOLT: But, for Vernon and Anne, the journey back ultimately served as a reminder that a house is not a home.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Possessions are always great. And they're nice to have. But, in the end, the bottom line is, family means everything. And I have got my father and my husband. And so, really, in a big way, I'm blessed.
OLBERMANN: As breathtakingly bad as it has been in New Orleans, there's still reason to believe that a wider area, if not necessarily a larger number of people, has been impacted in Mississippi.
Our correspondent David Shuster has been in Biloxi throughout this ordeal and joins us again.
David, good evening.
Apropos of Lester's report there, let me start you off with this. What have you seen of people coming back to that area? Has the number of them increased? And what are they finding?
DAVID SHUSTER, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Depends on the neighborhood, Keith.
In this particular neighborhood, for example, this is one of the poorest in Biloxi. It is called the Point. They are finding just nothing but rubble. They're not even finding roofs that they could somehow sleep under for the night.
In other neighborhoods, they are finding that there's major damage, but that perhaps an attic or an upstairs floor is sturdy enough that they can spend the night there. So, it just depends on the neighborhood. But, again, you're not having any - there's no power; there's no electricity; there's no water. One of the cell phone towers, we think, went down. So, there's no longer any more communications, even though we had that for a day.
So, it is pretty grim. But at least it is not like the problem in New Orleans, where the water is still rising and there's still that problem.
OLBERMANN: To that point, conditions in general there. Somebody told me once that a good rule of thumb to assess long-term damage anywhere after any disaster is how much of the power grid is out or gone? There are 2.8 million people, roughly, in the state. We were told today, 900,000 of them do not have power. If that rule of thumb is correct, that's 33 percent of Mississippi that's long-term damaged. Does that number sound right to you from what you've seen?
Keith, we have been told that there is no power in Mississippi even as far as 100 miles away. If you go east of Pensacola, there's power there. But, as far as Mississippi is concerned, I mean, there are all kinds of problems with power and electricity. The utility crews, you see them out there. And they were smart. Ahead of time, they actually shut down the power in a lot of cities, including Biloxi, as a way of thinking, well, we will just change the transformers when this is done.
But the devastation has been so severe that even that didn't really work, because just getting to some of these lines, you can't - it is not a matter now of just replacing some of the equipment.
OLBERMANN: Do they have enough information to assess how serious the personal toll is, the fatality numbers, the injury numbers? Is that information gathered yet? Or are we still a ways away from knowing that?
SHUSTER: No, we don't know that, Keith.
But we do know that, for example, in this particular neighborhood, they had 3,500 people who lived here. They suspect that a large number had to stay, because it's an impoverished area and because this catastrophe happened at the end of the month. People live paycheck to paycheck here. A lot of people, we're told anecdotally, were asking businesses, people they dealt with, their friends, can you loan us some money, so we can leave? It is the end of the month. We don't have the money to fill up the gas tank.
Those people, a lot of them, we presume, and a lot, we have been told, thought, you know what? Let's just take our chance. Let's stay here. Rather than spend the $40 on gas, let's buy batteries and we will ride it out. A lot of those people paid with their lives, especially in this neighborhood. But, again, it is such a severe problem as far as trying to count numbers, because nobody really knows how many people left and are not here because they're just taking refuge someplace else or how many people stayed and are not here because their body has been washed aside someplace.
OLBERMANN: The end of the month, such a good point, such a heartbreaking point. David Shuster in Biloxi this evening, great thanks.
Returning to Washington this afternoon, the president said the area will be recovering for years. But the issues of life and death, obviously, will be decided in days or hours. And that's why those helicopter rescues have become perhaps the visual logo of this disaster. The Coast Guard has already rescued more than 1,200 people in that way.
Lieutenant Zac Mathews is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot. He's been involved with dozens of open-water rescues.
Lieutenant Mathews, good evening. Thanks for your time tonight.
LIEUTENANT ZAC MATHEWS, U.S. COAST GUARD: Good evening, Keith. I'm glad to be here.
OLBERMANN: The rescues we're seeing, are they preplanned? Are they done from scouting a region and looking for people in houses? How do you wind up going to a particular location?
MATHEWS: Sir, basically, as the aircraft commanders in the aircraft get on scene, they're the one making the calls. They are up there. They've been given the discretion to basically provide whatever relief they can.
And once they get on scene, it is up to them to decide how to retrieve the survivors and how to get them to safety.
OLBERMANN: Are these more difficult than the open-sea rescues? It would seem you've got advantages of a stationary object there, in terms of a house. But, on the other hand, you've got power lines and irregular surfaces. Is one more difficult than the other?
MATHEWS: Keith, they're both about the same, actually.
You mentioned some of the things at sea that make it easier, obviously, the lack of power lines, the lack of antennas and trees. So, when we're going into situations like this, those are obviously things that the entire crew and the aircraft are going to take a look at to make sure that they can actually perform the rescue safety.
So, they both have their advantages and disadvantages. But this is - this is a new territory for us.
OLBERMANN: The numbers game here that we're working with - and it is guesswork and it's estimates. But if the mayor of New Orleans says there might still be 100,000 people in their homes there and if most of them are pinned in by the water, how long would that take to rescue them? How many people can be rescued one at a time by one Coast Guard helicopter in one day?
MATHEWS: Keith, unfortunately, it is going to take a long time. We have got two pilots. There's a flight mechanic and a rescue swimmer in those helicopters. So, that's four people already.
Based on the amount of fuel they have on board and the weight of the survivors they're picking up, that is going to determine how many folks they can actually put into a helicopter. Worst-case scenario, we're going to try and pick up as many people as we can safely, without endangering their lives.
But, you know, if you've ever been inside of those, there's just not a lot of room, so maybe five, six people at most, and then to transport them to safety. So, it will take quite a while to get all those people off the - to get them to safety.
OLBERMANN: And speaking of that, lastly, all the video we see, just like this see, people are seemingly stoic as they're hoisted up. Is everybody that calm or are we just seeing the occasions when people don't panic?
MATHEWS: You're going to see everything from one end of the spectrum to the other. Of course, those people who are getting lifted up for the first time are going to be very apprehensive. They're going to be scared being in a basket lifted 100 feet out of the air.
Other folks have lost their livelihood, all of their possessions. It is a tremendous shock. I think the best feeling, though, and the one that made me join in the first point is, when you have that arm reach up between the two pilots and grab your shoulder at the end of the hoist and you turn around and there's a face there and it just says, thank you. And when you get to the ground, that's what - that what makes it worthwhile for us.
OLBERMANN: Lieutenant Zac Mathews of the U.S. Coast Guard, thanks for taking us inside the rescue helicopters. And thanks for the rescues, too.
MATHEWS: Keith, my pleasure. Good evening.
OLBERMANN: You can and should get involved yourself. A concert for hurricane relief featuring performances by artists who have direct ties to the Gulf Coast, Tim McGraw, Harry Connick Jr., Wynton Marsalis. It will raise money for the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. Donations will be accepted before, during and after the hour-long special this Friday here on MSNBC and all of our NBC networks at 8:00 p.m. Eastern, 5:00 Pacific.
Tonight, from one Sugar Bowl drive in New Orleans to 8400 Kirby Drive in Houston, the trip is 355 miles and it should take five-and a-half miles. It is the route of the refugees going from the Superdome to the Astrodome.
And a nightmarish reminder that the rest of the world has not paused because of Hurricane Katrina, a bridge over the Tigris, a rumor of a suicide bomber and, suddenly, hundreds are dead in Iraq.
You're watching Countdown on MSNBC.
OLBERMANN: The mayor of New Orleans says there are probably more than 1,000 bodies floating in the floodwaters, and we blanch with horror. In Baghdad, no probably about it, a stampede and then mass death, hundreds of people dead.
That story is next here on Countdown.
OLBERMANN: There is a group taking apparent glee in the devastation wrought by Katrina, Iraqi insurgents now calling it God's punishment to America.
Rationalization is a wonderful and a dangerous thing. Our number two on the Countdown, a headline from Iraq that forces its way into our consciousness tonight, no matter how focused we are on the Gulf Coast, a stampede caused by rumor and panic killing hundreds on a bridge over the Tigris River and then in the Tigris River.
And, as Richard Engel reports from Baghdad, at least 852 people died.
More likely, it's closer to 1,000.
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC CORRESPONDENT: It started out an impassioned pilgrimage, several hundred thousand Shiite Muslims commemorating the death of one of their martyrs. The crowds were already on edge after four mortars landed nearby, killing seven.
Then, as thousands crossed this 300-yard bridge 30 feet above the Tigris River, somebody yelled, they saw a suicide bomber. Some pilgrims jumped. Other were pushed. More were trampled.
"We fell down on each other," said this woman. "It was death, death, death."
At local hospitals and on the street, the injured were lined up along with the dead.
(voice-over): Iraqi troops have now sealed off the neighborhood, as people continue to leave the area. Most people say they blame Sunni insurgents, who have in the past attacked Shiite pilgrims, for causing the panic that led to this fatal stampede.
(voice-over): Hours later, a haunting image on the bridge, sandals people kicked off their feet to run faster to escape a suicide bomber who wasn't there.
Richard Engel, NBC News, Baghdad.
OLBERMANN: Back to the devastation here, hundreds, perhaps thousands killed by Hurricane Katrina up and down the coast, hundreds, maybe thousands more now beginning to evacuate New Orleans entirely.
We will let the day's events speak for themselves when Countdown's coverage continues.
OLBERMANN: Finally tonight, it's doubtful, to say the least, that many children born this year or next in Louisiana or Alabama or Mississippi will be named Katrina by their parents.
The process of giving human names to tropical storms and hurricanes is just barely more than a half-a-century old. The first one was Hurricane Carol. And a bitter irony for the victims of Katrina, Carol made her landfall at Groton, Connecticut, exactly 51 years ago today. There and at westerly Rhode Island, at Cape Cod and Augusta, Maine, and throughout New England, 70 were killed.
Our number one story on the Countdown, an awful anniversary commemorated by, as we have been doing at the end of each night's newscast, the capsulized version of the day in pictures, day four of Hurricane Katrina.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the disaster everyone feared in New Orleans, even though the storm didn't make a direct hit there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK, it says diabetic, heart, needs transport.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Contrast the pictures of the rooftop rescues to then the looting in the streets. It's unbelievable.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE:... you're not supposed to do that.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, we don't, but if we're barefoot and we are walking in the water, our feet is going to get cut.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But you got at least six pairs of shoes there.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My whole family is at the hotel. I know. I understand I have at least six pairs of shoes, but we're trying to live.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had to lot a Winn-Dixie the other day to have food and water.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yesterday, though, a looter shot somebody in - or shot a police officer - oh, you see somebody right here with Nike tennis shoes walking out of town.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thousands of refugees in New Orleans are now on the move from one dome to another. Texas Governor Rick Perry has announced, the Houston Astrodome will open its doors today to the refugees.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I ain't going up there to the Superdome, not me, not my family.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Get us out of this place! Get us out of here!
We want to get out of here!
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing 475 buses for the transfer.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, we have very few resources. What are we supposed to do? I'm saying I have a 4-month-year-old child, very little food to feed him. This is a life-and-death situation. This is not a game, where you can just go back and start all over; OK, I made a mistake; let me win this time.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Please help us here. Can you give us a push?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just need a push up to the high ground.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Help us. Please, help us. Help us.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, who do you think? These guys are God.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thank God. I thank these guys, too, so that God sent them to us, you know?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There you go.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe that's a lot more severe than what we have seen in Gulfport and Biloxi.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sure is. That's gone.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's amazing, because you're going away from the ocean and it's still just flat back there.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the bridge. This is Highway 90 that would go back across to the Pass Christian area.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think anybody has ever seen anything like this. It's just - it's just unbelievable. And if anybody was trying to stay in any one of those homes trying to ride it out, I think it's pretty clear there's no way - there's no way they could have survived.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Search-and-rescue teams are combing the debris looking for survivors.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are still in that mode. We still feel that there's plenty of live people that we can get to.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, all too often, they're finding victims. Katrina has stripped away everything that was normal here, even pulling coffins from their graves and scattering them along the beach.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Right now, the days seem awfully dark for those affected. I understand that. But I'm confident that, with time, you'll get your life back in order. New communities will flourish. The great city of New Orleans will be back on its feet. And America will be a stronger place for it.
OLBERMANN: To recap the breaking news of this hour, the mayor of New Orleans redeploying 1,500 city police tonight, he says, taking them off the search for survivors, putting them instead on the search for looters, the looting sometimes for necessities, like food and water and clothing, sometimes for big-screen TVs during a blackout, sometimes so brazen that it's been done with the store's own shopping cart, done with police present.
All of that has led to Mayor Ray Nagin's announcement this evening, presumably contributing to it, a persistent fire evidently set by looters in a sporting goods store this afternoon on Bourbon Street. Nagin says looters are becoming more aggressive, now approaching areas like hotels and hospitals and he has no choice but to set up a facility to detain them.
That's Countdown. I'm Keith Olbermann. Good night and good luck.
Our coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues now with "RITA COSBY LIVE & DIRECT" from Aruba.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED. END