Insider Condemns FEMA Response
The only FEMA employee to ride out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans painted a grim portrait Thursday 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, backed by e-mails he sent from New Orleans as floodwaters engulfed much of the city, was the most detailed eyewitness account yet from a FEMA official of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of the disaster.
A veteran public affairs officer, Bahamonde was FEMA’s only representative in the city from Saturday, Aug. 27, until early Tuesday, Aug. 30. Katrina made landfall Monday morning, Aug. 29.
Bahamonde contested former FEMA director Michael D. Brown’s late-September testimony to a House committee, including Brown’s account of the number of FEMA staffers sent to the city before the storm -- “I was the only one,” Bahamonde said.
He was testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating federal response.
He portrayed Brown, who resigned Sept. 12, as having failed to grasp the enormity of the catastrophe.
In an Aug. 31 e-mail that Bahamonde sent a co-worker, his frustration with Brown burst through.
Bahamonde had just learned, as he huddled in New Orleans’ Superdome with evacuees, that Brown’s press secretary was fretting about blocking out time for the director to eat dinner at one of Baton Rouge’s busy restaurants that night.
“OH MY GOD!!!!!!!” Bahamonde messaged the co-worker. “I just ate an MRE” -- military rations -- “and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern about busy restaurants.”
Bahamonde had arrived in New Orleans on Saturday, Aug. 27, and started sounding the alarm soon after.
He learned from city officials that Sunday that 40,000 of the 360,000 military rations that FEMA had promised, and five of 15 water trucks, had arrived. A medical team also failed to materialize.
The Superdome, the citydesignated “refuge of last resort” for people with special needs that had opened Sunday morning, was already 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 testified, he realized how ill-prepared they were to care for those who had not gotten out ahead of the storm.
Bahamonde began e-mailing senior FEMA officials, warning them of the potential crisis and urging them to send a medical team before the hurricane struck.
Katrina made landfall at 6:10 a.m. Aug. 29. Later Monday morning, he learned that hurricane-propelled water had broken through New Orleans’ levees. He 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 levee failure. He told the director that much of the city was underwater and that food and water were urgently needed. 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, he said, 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 said he was at a loss to explain their inaction.
“I was confirming the worst-case scenario that everyone had always talked about” for New Orleans, said Bahamonde, a 12-year FEMA veteran based in Boston. “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 the day after the hurricane and slept there two nights. He was ordered out that Thursday evening as the security situation deteriorated.
In Brown’s Sept. 27 testimony to the House panel, which also is investigating the government’s response, FEMA’s former director said he had sent a dozen FEMA staffers, including a medical team, to New Orleans before Katrina struck. He said Bahamonde was designated as his liaison to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
Not true, Bahamonde testified Thursday. “I was the only one” Brown sent to New Orleans before the hurricane, he said. He added, “I was not sent there to be a liaison with anyone.”
Brown had testified that Bahamonde sent him a “fairly routine kind of e-mail” the day of the hurricane, describing “general conditions” at the Superdome. Bahamonde also communicated later that day, Brown testified, that the shelter “had plenty of food” for its throngs.
Not so, Bahamonde testified Thursday. “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.”
He said he never told Brown that food supplies were adequate.
Brown’s testimony to the House panel has likewise been disputed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Brown testified that local and state officials were mainly to blame for the problems with hurricane relief efforts. Chertoff, whose agency oversees FEMA, told the House committee Wednesday that FEMA was largely at fault.
Senate committee members repeatedly described Bahamonde’s efforts as “heroic” and praised him for his willingness to come forward with his sharply different version of events.
“Marty has a huge heart,” FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said when asked by The Times about Bahamonde’s testimony. “He is hard-working, a lover of FEMA, a lover of the mission of the agency.”
Andrews declined to comment on the discrepancies between Bahamonde’s and Brown’s accounts. “All of those things are going to be things that are worked out” in the hearings with Congress, she said.
Brown is still on FEMA’s payroll as a consultant, Andrews confirmed. He works from home, where he is “pulling all the documentation together” for the investigations into Katrina response, she said, and his original 30-day contract was recently extended for another 30 days.
Noting the contradictions between Bahamonde’s testimony and Brown’s -- both of which were given under oath -- Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) asked committee Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) to alert the House panel before which Brown appeared.
“The story you tell is incredibly discouraging, incredibly powerful,” Levin told Bahamonde. “It conflicts in very serious ways with the story Mr. Brown told.”
Senate committee members said they were particularly concerned that although Bahamonde had informed Brown over the phone Monday night that the levees had broken, Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said they were not informed until Tuesday of the breach.
“Where was the breakdown?” Levin asked.
Bahamonde’s testimony and e-mails were evidence of “a complete disconnect between senior [FEMA] officials and the reality of the situation,” Collins said.
But Collins also faulted New Orleans officials.
Had they acted more quickly after the levees broke Monday morning, she said, they might have evacuated more people before the city flooded.
At Collins’ request, Bahamonde read aloud an e-mail he sent a senior FEMA official Sept. 3, expressing his anguish at hurricane survivors’ suffering in New Orleans.
“The leadership from top down in our agency is unprepared and out of touch,” Bahamonde read. His voice breaking, he continued: “I can’t get out of my head the visions of children and babies I saw sitting [in the Superdome], helpless, looking at me and hoping I could make a difference.”