Testimony Refutes FEMA Ex-Chief's Ignorance Claims

Former FEMA director Michael Brown resigned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, saying he was initially unaware of the gravity of the situation as New Orleans flooded. But Senate testimony on Thursday by a FEMA official who reported directly to Brown as Katrina hit the Gulf Coast challenges the former director's claim he wasn't made aware of what was happening.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Emotional and angry testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday about Hurricane Katrina and FEMA's poor performance before and after that storm. This from a FEMA employee who was there in New Orleans. In fact, Marty Bahamonde told the Senate Homeland Security Committee he was the only FEMA official to ride out the storm in New Orleans. That directly contradicts other testimony by the former head of FEMA, Michael Brown, who recently resigned. Mr. Bahamonde also produced a series of e-mail messages he exchanged with other officials, fairly damning ones. NPR congressional correspondent David Welna covered the hearings. He joins us now.

David, first, who is Marty Bahamonde, and why did the Senate Homeland Security panel ask him to testify?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Alex, Marty Bahamonde's a public affairs officer who's worked for FEMA a dozen years, and he's someone former FEMA Director Michael Brown apparently had a lot of confidence in because Brown sent him to New Orleans as a sort of advance man for FEMA as Katrina was moving toward the city. He, in fact, was the only FEMA official in New Orleans as the storm hit. And the Senate Homeland Security Committee is holding a series of hearings trying to get to the bottom of what went wrong with the Katrina response and who's responsible. And members of that panel wanted to hear Bahamonde's insider's account--essentially a whistle-blower's account of how FEMA fumbled Katrina.

CHADWICK: Well, just beginning right there, the former FEMA chief, Michael Brown, has said there were at least a dozen FEMA staffers in New Orleans the day of the storm.

WELNA: Right, which raises the possibility that Brown lied under oath to Congress, which is a pretty serious offense. But even though Bahamonde was, in fact, the only FEMA official there, he was still able to alert FEMA officials in Washington that there had been a 20-foot breach in the 17th Avenue levee in New Orleans, and he did that the same Monday morning that the storm hit. And later in the day, he was able to see the widespread flooding that resulted firsthand by taking a helicopter ride over the city, and he described to the committee how hard it was to convince officials in Washington of what was happening.

Mr. MARTY BAHAMONDE (FEMA Regional Director): Upon landing at approximately 7:00, I immediately made three telephone calls to explain the situation. The first was to Undersecretary Brown directly, the second was to FEMA's front office, and the third was to FEMA Public Affairs. That third call was to set up a conference call with FEMA operations and headquarters: the Emergency Response Team national team that was based in Baton Rouge, the Regional Response Coordination Center in Denton, Texas, and with FEMA's front office so that I could make as many people aware of the situation that faced FEMA and the city of New Orleans.

Approximately five minutes later I received a call from FEMA Public Affairs asking me how sure I was what I saw, because there was some push-back on the need for a conference call. And I stated I had never been so sure of anything in my life.

WELNA: Yeah, and Bahamonde actually said that former FEMA Director Brown thanked him for calling and said he was calling the White House, but then President Bush seemed to be out of the loop. He was seen the next day strumming a guitar in California and maintained that that was the day the levees broke. And Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff said the same thing.

CHADWICK: What about these series of e-mails, David?

WELNA: Bahamonde said that he wrote FEMA that the Superdome was overwhelmed with tens of thousands of people on the day that Katrina hit, that food, water, medicine and even toilet paper were in desperately short supply, and yet FEMA kept directing more people to the increasingly flooded Superdome.

CHADWICK: And wasn't he stuck in the Dome himself?

WELNA: He was there--for a time he said he actually had to swim through water across the street from the Hyatt Hotel to try to alert the mayor, Ray Nagin, of what was going on in the Superdome.

CHADWICK: How about the reaction on Capitol Hill to this?

WELNA: The Republican chair of this Senate panel that heard from Bahamonde said that she's going to have Brown come up and testify about the discrepancies in his previous sworn testimony with what Bahamonde told them yesterday. And she also plans to have Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff come testify. And, you know, I think this problem of Katrina's failings by the Senate panel will keep moving forward, but at the same time I'm--the interest in who's responsible for this and what went wrong seems to be fading in Washington as the city gets distracted with lots of other scandals and missteps that are going on. And I think a telling symptom of this short attention span was that only about half the members of the Senate panel even bothered showing up for yesterday's hearing.

CHADWICK: NPR congressional correspondent David Welna was there, and with us today.

David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Alex.

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