FEMA official contradicts former chief on Katrina

Unprepared managers failed to respond, senators are told

October 21, 2005|By MARY CURTIUS | MARY CURTIUS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The only FEMA employee to ride out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans painted a grim portrait yesterday of an agency led by officials who were unprepared for the scope of the disaster and failed to respond to his increasingly desperate pleas for help.

Marty Bahamonde's emotional testimony before a Senate committee, backed by e-mail he sent from New Orleans as floodwaters engulfed much of the city, provided the most detailed eyewitness account yet from an agency official of FEMA's handling of the disaster.

A veteran public affairs officer with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Bahamonde was its only representative in the city from the Saturday before the flood began on Monday, Aug. 29, until early the next day.

He contradicted testimony that FEMA Director Michael Brown gave a House committee in late September and portrayed him as failing to grasp the enormity of the catastrophe.

Bahamonde's effort to sound the alarm began shortly after he arrived in New Orleans on Aug. 27. He learned the next day from city officials that only 40,000 of the 360,000 military rations FEMA had promised had arrived, along with only five of 15 water trucks.

A promised medical team failed to materialize. The Superdome, where residents were seeking shelter, was running short of oxygen tanks for critically ill patients.

As city officials scrambled to collect toilet paper and other supplies from city offices to stock the Superdome, Bahamonde said, he realized how ill-prepared they were to care for those who had failed to evacuate.

Bahamonde began sending e-mail to senior FEMA officials, warning them of the precarious situation and urging that they send in a medical team before the hurricane struck.

On Monday morning, he learned that water had broken through the levees in New Orleans and sent an e-mail before noon warning that the breach was a catastrophic development.

That night, he phoned Brown to tell him directly of the failure of the levees. He told the director that much of the city was underwater and there was an urgent need for food and water. But he said Brown asked no questions.

"All he said was: `Thank you. I'm now going to call the White House,'" Bahamonde said.

Senior FEMA officials repeatedly failed to respond to his reports on the deteriorating situation in the days before and after the hurricane devastated New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast, Bahamonde told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Senate panel charged with investigating the government's response. He said he was at a loss to explain their behavior.

"I was confirming the worst-case scenario that everyone had always talked about," said the 12-year FEMA veteran. "Each day it was a battle to find enough food and water, to feed survivors. It was a struggle from meal to meal."

He moved into the Superdome on Tuesday, and slept there two nights until he was ordered out Thursday evening as security deteriorated.

In his Sept. 27 testimony to the House panel that also is investigating the government's response, Brown had said he sent a dozen FEMA staffers, including a medical team, to New Orleans before Katrina hit. He said Bahamonde was his liaison to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

"I was the only one" Brown sent to New Orleans before the storm, Bahamonde said yesterday. "I was not sent to be a liaison with anyone."

Brown testified that Bahamonde had sent him a "fairly routine kind of e-mail" Aug. 29, describing "general conditions" at the Superdome. Bahamonde communicated later that day, Brown testified, that the shelter "had plenty of food."

"Nothing I did was routine as I tried to express in the best way I could the urgency and need for medical teams before the hurricane hit, because there was already a critical situation developing there on Sunday," Bahamonde said yesterday.

Other parts of Brown's testimony before the House panel were disputed Wednesday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Brown had said local and state officials were mainly to blame for the problems with relief. Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, told the committee that the agency was largely at fault.

FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews confirmed that Brown is still on FEMA's payroll as a consultant. She said he works from home, where he is "pulling all the documentation together" to aid in the investigations into the government's response to Katrina.

Pointing out the contradictions between Bahamonde's testimony and Brown's - both of which were given under oath - Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, asked committee Chairwoman Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, to alert the House panel Brown appeared before.

Senate committee members said they were particularly concerned that although Bahamonde informed Brown on Monday night that the levees had broken, Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard B. Meyers have said they were not informed until Tuesday.

Bahamonde's testimony and e-mail are evidence of "a complete disconnect between senior [FEMA] officials and the reality of the situation," Collins said. But she also faulted New Orleans officials, saying that if they had acted more quickly after the levees broke, they might have evacuated more people before the city flooded.

At her request, Bahamonde read an e-mail he sent a senior FEMA official Sept. 3.

"The leadership from top down in our agency is unprepared and out of touch," he read.

Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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