Federal Emergency Management Agency officials did not respond to repeated warnings about deteriorating conditions in New Orleans and the dire need for help as Hurricane Katrina struck, the first FEMA official to arrive conceded Thursday.
Marty Bahamonde (search), a FEMA regional director, told a Senate panel investigating the government's response to the disaster that he gave regular updates to people in contact with then-FEMA Director Michael Brown as early as Aug. 28, one day before Katrina made landfall.
In most cases, he was met with silence. In an Aug. 29 phone call to Brown informing him that the first levee had broke, Bahamaonde said he received a polite thank you from Brown, who said he would check with the White House.
"I think there was a systematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magnitude of the situation," Bahamonde said.
The testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee contradicted Brown, who has said he wasn't fully aware of the dire conditions until days later and that local officials were most responsible for the sluggish response.
Sen. Susan Collins (search), R-Maine, who chairs the panel, decried the testimony and e-mail released by Bahamonde on Thursday as illustrating "a complete disconnect between senior officials and the reality of the situation."
"His urgent reports did not appear to prompt an urgent response," Collins said.
In e-mails to various FEMA officials, including one to Brown, Bahamonde described a chaotic situation at the Superdome, where many of the evacuees were sheltered. Bahamonde e-mailed FEMA officials and noted also that local officials were asking for toilet paper, a sign that supplies were lacking at the shelter.
"Issues developing at the Superdome. The medical staff at the dome says they will run out of oxygen in about two hours and are looking for alternative oxygen," Bahamonde wrote in an e-mail to David Passey, an assistant to Brown, in late afternoon on Aug. 28.
Less than an hour later, Bahamonde wrote: "Everyone is soaked. This is going to get ugly real fast."
Bahamonde said he was stunned that FEMA officials responded by sending truckloads of evacuees to the Superdome on that day even though they knew supplies were in short supply.
"I thought it amazing," he said. "I believed at the time and still do today, that I was confirming the worst-case scenario that everyone had always talked about regarding New Orleans."
Later, on Aug. 31, Bahamonde frantically e-mailed Brown to tell him that thousands are evacuees were gathering in the streets with no food or water and that "estimates are many will die within hours."
"Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical," Bahamonde wrote.
Less than three hours later, however, Brown's press secretary wrote colleagues to complain that the FEMA director needed more time to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge restaurant that evening. "He needs much more that 20 or 30 minutes," wrote Brown aide Sharon Worthy.
"We now have traffic to encounter to go to and from a location of his choise, followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc. Thank you."