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Friday, October 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Death in streets took a back seat to dinner

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — In the midst of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, a Federal Emergency Management Agency official in New Orleans sent a dire e-mail to Director Michael Brown saying victims had no food and were dying.

No response came from Brown.

Instead, less than three hours later, an aide to Brown sent an e-mail saying her boss wanted to go on a television program that night — after needing at least an hour to eat dinner at a Baton Rouge, La., restaurant.

The e-mails were made public yesterday at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing featuring Marty Bahamonde, the first agency official to arrive in New Orleans before the Aug. 29 storm. The hurricane killed more than 1,200 people and forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate.

Bahamonde, who sent the e-mail to Brown two days after the storm struck, said the correspondence illustrates the government's failure to grasp what was happening.

"There was a systematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magnitude of the situation," Bahamonde testified. "The leadership from top down in our agency is unprepared and out of touch."

The 19 pages of internal FEMA e-mails show Bahamonde gave regular updates to people in contact with Brown as early as Aug. 28, the day before Katrina made landfall. They appear to contradict Brown, who has said he was not fully aware of the conditions until days after the storm hit. Brown quit after being recalled from New Orleans amid criticism of his work.

Brown had sent Bahamonde, FEMA's regional director in New England, to New Orleans to help coordinate the agency's response. Bahamonde arrived Aug. 27 and was the only agency official at the scene until FEMA disaster teams arrived Aug. 30.

As Katrina's outer bands began drenching the city Aug. 28, Bahamonde sent an e-mail to Deborah Wing, a FEMA response specialist. He wrote: "Everyone is soaked. This is going to get ugly real fast."

Subsequent e-mails told of an increasingly desperate situation at the New Orleans Superdome, where tens of thousands of evacuees were staying. Bahamonde spent two nights there with the evacuees.

On Aug. 31, Bahamonde e-mailed Brown to tell him that thousands of 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. "The sooner we can get the medical patients out, the sooner we can get them out."

A short time later, Brown's press secretary, Sharon Worthy, wrote to colleagues, in an e-mail containing numerous misspellings, 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," Worthy wrote.

"Restaurants are getting busy," she said. "We now have traffic to encounter to get to and from a location of his choise, followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc. Thank you."

"OH MY GOD!!!!!!!" Bahamonde messaged a 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."

On the morning of Aug. 29, Bahamonde said, he alerted Brown's assistant to the "worst possible news" for New Orleans: that the 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 that evening to warn that 80 percent of New Orleans was under water and that he had photographed what was by then a 200-foot-wide breach.

"He just said, 'Thank you,' and that he was going to call the White House," Bahamonde said.

"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," Bahamonde said.

President Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Richard 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 daylong window when operations could have been launched to rush aid to the Superdome or rescue more than 50,000 residents and tourists before streets and homes were flooded.

As recently as this week, Chertoff told a House 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."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the committee hearing testimony yesterday, said, "This disconnect ... is beyond disturbing. It's shocking."

Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, said, "We will examine further why critical information provided by Mr. Bahamonde was either discounted, misunderstood or simply not acted upon."

In e-mails, Bahamonde described to his bosses a chaotic situation at the Superdome. Bahamonde 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 regional director David Passey on Aug. 28.

Bahamonde said he was stunned that FEMA officials responded by continuing to send truckloads of evacuees to the Superdome for two more days 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."

At a separate congressional hearing, lawmakers considering Louisiana's request for $32 billion for Gulf Coast rebuilding were told that Mississippi would need tens of billions of dollars of its own to restore its coastline.

Gulf Coast lawmakers and state officials have been pushing for vast infusions of federal money aid since Katrina hit.

"It will be in the billions, with a 'b,' level, it may be in the tens of billions; it won't be in the hundreds of billions," William Walker, head of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources, told a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

But Rep. John Duncan Jr., the subcommittee chairman, earlier had said Congress cannot afford Louisiana's request. "This is just not going to happen," said Duncan, R-Tenn.

Also yesterday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., called on federal officials to justify their decision to sign a $236 million deal with Carnival Cruise Lines for Hurricane Katrina housing, saying the six-month contract is overpriced.

In a letter, Waxman asked Chertoff to release documents indicating how the price was calculated. Waxman said he had Carnival documents from 2002 showing the company normally earns revenue of $150 million over six months.

"A comparison of this information to the federal contract raises serious questions about whether the Carnival contract is a responsible use of taxpayer funds," Waxman wrote.

Material on the New Orleans levee breach was provided by The Washington Post.

E-mail excerpts

Marty Bahamonde, regional director for New England, to David Passey, regional director for the Gulf Coast, Aug. 28, 4:46 p.m.

"Issues developing at the Superdome. 2000 already in and more standing in line. ... The medical staff at the dome says they will run out of oxygen in about 2 hours and are looking for alternative oxygen."

Bahamonde to Deborah Wing, FEMA response specialist, Aug 28, 5:28 p.m.

"Everyone is soaked. This is going to get ugly real fast."

Passey to group, Aug 28, 7:16 p.m.

"The current population at the Superdome in New Orleans is 25,000. That's a large crowd during a normal event. Among the shelter population are 400 special needs evacuees and 45-50 sick individuals who require hospitalization. The on-hand oxygen supply will likely run out in the next few hours. According to the ... [health and medical services] folks, the local health officials have struggled to put meaningful resource requests together."

Passey to Bahamonde, Aug. 28, 9:58 p.m.

"Our intel is that neither the ... [Oklahoma medical-disaster team] nor the public health officers staged in Memphis will make it to the Superdome tonight. Oxygen supply issue has not been solved yet either."

Bahamonde to Michael Heath, FEMA official, Aug. 29, 7:33 a.m.

"Some pumping stations failed but no widespread flooding yet. The reall worry will be in the next 3 hours when he storm passes and we get the northerly winds blowing thwe lake into the city

Bahamonde to Nicole Andrews, FEMA spokeswoman, Aug. 30, 7:02 a.m.

"The area around the Superdome is filling up with water, now waist deep."

Bahamonde to Taylor, Sept. 3, 1:06 a.m.

"The leadership from top down in our agency is unprepared and out of touch. ... But while I am horrified at some of the cluelessness and self concern that persists, I try to focus on those that have put their lives on hold to help people that they have never met and never will. And while I sometimes think that I can't work in this arena, I can't get out of my head the visions of children and babies I saw sitting there, helpless, looking at me and hoping I could make a difference and so I will and you must to."

The Associated Press

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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