How to Do a Heck of a Job Without Really Trying
As we wait for Wilma to do her dirty work in Mexico and then recross the Gulf to take on Florida, the Senate has been continuing its hearings into the official response to FEMA. Yesterday, Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA public relations officer and the only FEMA representative in New Orleans before Katrina hit, told the Senate committee that everything we’ve heard up to now has been wrong. Former FEMA Director Michael Brown has previously said that he’d sent a medical team and several other FEMA personnel to the city before disaster struck, but Bahamonde claims he was there alone. You can read a PDF of his opening statement, but as far as I can find, a transcript of his back and forth with senators is not yet online.
Bahamonde got to New Orleans on Saturday night, more than twenty-four hours before Katrina hit, and quickly saw that trouble lay ahead. Despite the fact that he’d only just arrived, FEMA told him that he should evacuate Sunday morning, but as for thousands of others stuck in the city, traffic was too heavy and there was no way out. His attention turned to the Superdome, and he could see it would soon get ugly there.
By noon, thousands began arriving and by midday, lines wrapped around the building. It was also at that time that I realized that the size of the crowd was a big concern at [the city’s Emergency Operation Center (EOC)]. Terry Ebbert, the city’s Homeland Security Director, made an announcement in the EOC that struck me. He asked the maintenance staff to gather up all of the toilet paper in city hall and any other commodities they could find and immediately take them over to the Superdome. I specifically note this because it told me that supplies at the dome might be a serious issue.
Supplies seemed under control, as the National Guard told him 360,000 ready-to-eat meals (MREs), fifteen trucks of water, and a FEMA Disaster Medical Assistance Team were all due soon. As we all know by now, much of that never arrived--just over a tenth of the meals, a third of the water trucks, and no medical team showed up. By Sunday evening, Bahamonde was already sending e-mails of concern about the Superdome (I’m combining two separate e-mails sent seventeen minutes apart):
Everyone is soaked, This is going to get ugly real fast . Everyone here at the EOC is very concerned with what might happen over there
It really is the only shelter and as the winds pick up more and more people will be going there.
At 11:00 Monday morning, Bahamonde heard about the first levee break and passed that on. You may recall that the Prez, Chertoff, and various others claimed they never knew about the flooding until Tuesday. We can’t know whether they’re telling the truth or not, but even if they are, there’s no excuse when we now know FEMA’s only representative on the scene was getting the word out. Again we can only blame massive indifference or massive incompetence (or both, I suppose), and you can decide which is worse. He told the Senate committee:
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.
One detail that everybody’s picking up on (because it’s just so, I don’t know, Marie Antoinette or something) is an e-mail exchange concerning Brownie’s dinner on the Wednesday after Katrina. First, Brownie’s press secretary, forwarded to Bahamonde (I copied and pasted, so all typos are in the original):
Also, it is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner. Gievn that Baton Rouge is back to normal, restaurants are getting busy. He needs much more that 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. Thank you.
And Bahamonde’s response (again, copied and pasted, so this is as originally written):
OH MY GOD!!!!!!!! NO won't go any further, too easy of a target. Just tell her that I just ate an MRE and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome along wirh 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern about busy retaurants. Maybe tonight I will have time to move the pebbles on the parking garage floor so they don't stab me in the back while I try to sleep, but instaed I will hope her wait at Ruth Christ is short.
PDFs of these and other e-mails graciously provided by The New York Times here and here.