- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

The lone Federal Emergency Management Agency official in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck says federal officials knew of the failure of the 17th Street Canal shortly after it happened, and that the Superdome shelter ran out of food and oxygen before the storm hit Aug. 29.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Director Michael D. Brown have said they did not know until late Aug. 30 that the levee system failed or that New Orleans was underwater.

However, Marty Bahamonde, FEMA regional director, told the Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday the levee breach was reported at 11 a.m., Aug. 29, and that he gave regular updates to FEMA. After a helicopter tour of the city with the Coast Guard early that evening, Mr. Bahamonde said he “immediately” called Mr. Brown at 7 p.m. and then organized a conference call with other FEMA officials.

“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,” Mr. Bahamonde said.

R. David Paulison, who replaced Mr. Brown as FEMA director just days after Katrina struck the city, declined to comment on Mr. Bahamonde’s testimony, but said: “Marty is a very dedicated, very hard-working FEMA employee, and he cares very much for the people that he serves. I really can’t comment on the interaction between him and Mr. Brown.”

He said FEMA is looking “very, very carefully” at what transpired to learn lessons that will “make this agency respond better and to make this whole system work more smoothly.”

“I really don’t want to get into Katrina too much, quite frankly. I wasn’t here then as far as being in charge and making those types of decisions. All I can deal with is what we’re doing from here on out,” Mr. Paulison said.

Katrina left thousands of New Orleans residents stranded, with 80 percent of the city underwater. The emergency shelter at the Superdome held 25,000 people and was out of food and water, and oxygen for the sick and elderly had already been exhausted by the time the Category 4 hurricane made landfall.

Mr. Bahamonde said he was ordered to evacuate New Orleans Aug. 28, “but like the thousands of other people left in New Orleans, the traffic jams leaving the city that morning prevented me from leaving.”

On Aug. 30, conditions at the Superdome were in “rapid decline,” a fact Mr. Bahamonde said he communicated to Mr. Brown when he arrived in Louisiana later that day. “I told him that the Superdome conditions were deplorable, and that we desperately needed food and water,” Mr. Bahamonde said.

The committee released numerous e-mail messages sent and received by Mr. Bahamonde describing the dire situation in the city as it unfolded, and reactions from officials.

At 11:20 a.m., Aug. 31, Mr. Bahamonde e-mailed Mr. Brown that “the situation is critical” and that dying patients were being evacuated but that “estimates are many will die within hours.”

At 2 p.m. that day, Mr. Brown’s press secretary sent an e-mail saying “it is very important that time be allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner. Given that Baton Rogue is back to normal, restaurants are getting busy. He needs much more than 20 or 30 minutes. We now have traffic to encounter to get to and from a location of his choice, followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc.”

Mr. Bahamonde then responded in an e-mail to another colleague that he had just eaten a military meal-ready-to-eat (MRE) and relieved himself “in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends, so I understand [the press secretary’s] concern about busy restaurants.”

FEMA’s disaster medical assistance team and four emergency-response workers lived and worked from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1 inside the Superdome, which Mr. Bahamonde described as “a shelter of last resort that cascaded into a cesspool of human waste and filth.” Evacuees were fed twice daily with food scavenged by the Coast Guard and National Guard, he said.

FEMA officials were ordered Sept. 1 to evacuate the Superdome with all medical teams and supplies because of rumors of riots. Mr. Bahamonde said he unsuccessfully protested the decision with Mr. Brown, reporting that 150 heavily armed troops had arrived and security levels were sufficient.

“Within an hour, all FEMA personnel were ordered onto trucks and driven out of the dome. Our leaving meant that FEMA lost visibility of the situation and operational control at the Superdome,” Mr. Bahamonde said.

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