WASHINGTON — A FEMA insider who was former director Michael Brown's "eyes and ears" in New Orleans will break ranks and tell Senate investigators Thursday that he repeatedly tried to sound the alarm about broken levees and other ominous developments in the city, but officials at all levels failed to act decisively.
Wednesday, August 31: Much of New Orleans is underwater when a FEMA official inside the Superdome sends an urgent BlackBerry message to his boss, director Michael Brown:
"...the situation is past critical... hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water... estimates are many will die within hours," writes Marty Bahamonde, who was sent to be Brown's eyes and ears within the city.
Bahamonde tells Senate investigators he doesn't remember getting a response to that e-mail, but later was forwarded this one, which shows Brown's press secretary fretting about Brown's dining plans for that evening.
"...it is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner," she writes. "Given that Baton Rogue is back to normal, restaurants are getting busy. He needs much more [than] 20 or 30 minutes."
"That's just appalling," says Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Collins says Brown's inner circle seemingly failed to grasp the urgency of Bahamonde's warnings.
"There's this extraordinary disconnect between what he's reporting and the reaction back in Washington," she says.
Bahamonde expressed his frustration about the "dinner e-mail," responding:
"OH MY GOD!!!!! Just tell her that I just ate an MRE and [went to the bathroom] in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends, so I understand her concern about busy restaurants."
Bahamonde also says officials at all levels of government failed to act on his early warnings that a key 17th Street levee had failed. He says local and FEMA officials had 16 hours to warn the public -- and no one sounded the alarm.
"People should have been told that New Orleans was going to flood," says John Copenhaver, a former regional director of FEMA.
Wednesday, in Congress, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff disputed FEMA director Brown's claim that state and local officials were to blame for the debacle.
"I'm not going to judge others," Chertoff said. "I did not have a problem dealing with state and local officials."
Wednesday, a Homeland Security spokesman did not dispute the e-mails, but said they don't present the whole picture of FEMA's efforts.