For 16 critical hours, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, including former director Michael D. Brown, dismissed urgent eyewitness accounts by FEMA's only staffer in New Orleans that Hurricane Katrina had broken the city's levee system the morning of Aug. 29 and was causing catastrophic flooding, the staffer told the Senate yesterday.
Marty Bahamonde, sent to New Orleans by Brown, said he alerted Brown's assistant shortly after 11 a.m. that Monday with the "worst possible news" for the city: The Category 4 hurricane had carved a 20-foot breach in the 17th Avenue Canal levee.
Five FEMA aides were e-mailed Bahamonde's report of "water flow 'bad' " from the broken levees designed to hold back Lake Pontchartrain. Bahamonde said he called Brown personally after 7 p.m. to warn that 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater and that he had photographed a 200-foot-wide breach.
"FEMA headquarters knew at 11 o'clock. Mike Brown knew at 7 o'clock. Most of FEMA's operational staff knew by 9 o'clock that evening. I don't know where that information went," said Bahamonde, a 12-year FEMA staffer who has worked full time since 2002 as a public affairs official.
Testifying to a bipartisan Senate panel investigating the response to the hurricane, Bahamonde said his accounts were discarded by officials in Baton Rouge and Washington headquarters amid conflicting information.
His disclosures add significantly to public knowledge of how much information Brown and FEMA officials had about the damage Katrina caused, and how soon they were aware of it. The federal government has been widely criticized for its slow, uncoordinated response to the hurricane, which left 1,053 people dead in Louisiana, most of them in New Orleans.
President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Richard B. Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all said they were told that the city's flood walls did not fail until Aug. 30. They said they assumed that the worst was over during a day-long window when operations could have been launched to rush aid to the Louisiana Superdome or rescue more than 50,000 residents and tourists before streets and homes were flooded.
"This disconnect . . . is beyond disturbing. It's shocking," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is leading the investigation.
Bahamonde said he found it "amazing" that New Orleans officials continued to let thousands gather at the Superdome, even though they knew that the area around it was going to flood. Ten people later died at the Superdome.
"Urgent reports did not appear to prompt an urgent response," said panel Chairman Susan M. Collins (R-Maine). She asked "why the city continued to send people to the Superdome, when it appears they should have evacuated the Superdome?"
As recently as this week, Chertoff told a House Katrina investigation, "The report -- last report I got on Monday [Aug. 29] was that the levees -- there had not been a significant breach in the levees. It appeared that the worst was over."
In contrast, Bahamonde, who was dressed in a dark suit and spoke somberly to senators for nearly three hours, 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."
In a series of increasingly dire, angry e-mails and phone calls, Bahamonde updated Brown, aides and top spokesmen for FEMA beginning Aug. 28 from the New Orleans emergency operations center and then from the Superdome across the street.
"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 to FEMA Region VI spokesman David Passey on Aug. 28.
That night, 25,000 people were inside including 400 people with special medical needs and 45 who required hospitalization. The center was short of toilet paper, water and food, the last of which was adequate through Tuesday only because a Coast Guard helicopter crew found and broke into five abandoned FEMA trailer trucks at Bahamonde's direction, Bahamonde said yesterday.
About 7 p.m. Aug. 29, Bahamonde said, he called Brown and warned him of "massive flooding," that 20,000 people were short of food and water at the Superdome and that thousands of people were standing on roofs or balconies seeking rescue.
Brown replied only: "Thank you. I'm going to call the White House," Bahamonde said.
It is unclear what Brown told his superiors or the president's aides. He has testified to receiving "conflicting information" about 10 a.m. Monday that the levees had broken and at noon or 1 p.m. that "the levees had only been topped. So we knew something was going on between 10 and noon on Monday."
Bahamonde contradicted accounts by Brown that FEMA had positioned 12 staffers in the Superdome before the storm, that Bahamonde's reports Monday were "routine" and that FEMA medical personnel were on hand before Tuesday.
At 11:20 a.m. Aug. 31, Bahamonde e-mailed Brown, "Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical . . . thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water . . . estimates are many will die within hours."
At 2:27 p.m., however, Brown press secretary Sharon Worthy wrote colleagues to schedule an interview for Brown on MSNBC's "Scarborough Country" and to give him more time to eat dinner because Baton Rouge restaurants were getting busy: "He needs much more that 20 or 30 minutes."
Bahamonde e-mailed a friend to "just tell [Worthy] that I just ate an MRE . . . along with 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.