ABC, NBC failed to report critical testimony of FEMA official

On October 20, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) public affairs officer Marty J. Bahamonde testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs on the failure of then-FEMA director Michael D. Brown and other agency officials to respond to Bahamonde's urgent calls for help. Bahamonde was the only FEMA official deployed to New Orleans in advance of Hurricane Katrina and the top FEMA official on the ground during and immediately after the hurricane hit. Later on October 20, of the three major networks' evening newscasts, only CBS's Evening News covered Bahamonde's testimony from earlier that day; NBC's Nightly News and ABC's World News Tonight did not.

Bahamonde testified about his efforts -- before and after Katrina hit -- to warn his superiors at FEMA about Katrina's potentially devastating impact. His testimony concerning the conditions at the Louisiana Superdome contradicted earlier statements by Brown, who claimed that Bahamonde informed him that the stadium was well-stocked with food and water for city residents forced to seek shelter there; Bahamonde testified that he “couldn't have been any more clear to [Brown] that food and water was a desperate situation at the Superdome.”

NBC did not report on Bahamonde's testimony, despite having obtained exclusive copies of emails between Bahamonde and Brown's press secretary that corroborate the former's testimony and despite breaking the story of their existence on the October 19 broadcast. Specifically, the emails showed that Bahamonde emailed Brown on August 31 to warn that thousands of New Orleans residents were without food and water and that he estimated that many could die within hours. The next message Bahamonde received from Brown's office was an email from his press secretary to colleagues advising them to allow Brown enough time to eat dinner at one of Baton Rouge's restaurants, which were “getting busy.”

NBC and ABC also included in their October 19 evening news reports coverage of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's testimony from that afternoon, which disputed Brown's statements placing primary responsibility for the botched response on state and local agencies rather than on FEMA. Yet the following day, neither network followed up with coverage of Bahamonde's testimony.

None of the three networks reported on Bahamonde's testimony during their October 21 morning news broadcasts: NBC's Today, ABC's Good Morning America, and CBS's The Early Show.

From the October 20 edition of CBS Evening News:

BOB SCHIEFFER (CBS News anchor): Congress heard more shocking testimony today about FEMA's slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Only this time, FEMA was under fire from one of its own, someone who was in the thick of the disaster and says that he tried to get his superiors to do something about it, but, at one point, they were literally out to dinner. Here's [CBS News correspondent] Bob Orr.

ORR: Twelve hours before Katrina began battering New Orleans, the lone FEMA official inside the city e-mailed headquarters with a dire warning: “This is going to get ugly real fast.” But Marty Bahamonde told Senate investigators today that message, like many others he sent during the crisis, was largely ignored.

[begin video clip of Bahamonde's October 20 testimony to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs]

BAHAMONDE: And in my opinion, there was a systematic failure at all levels of government to fully comprehend the magnitude and the severity of the situation that was presenting itself on an hour-by-hour basis.

[end video clip]

ORR: When the first levee failed, Bahamonde frantically called FEMA boss Mike Brown, worried that floodwaters could keep FEMA trucks from reaching the city.

[begin video clip of Bahamonde's October 20 testimony]

BAHAMONDE: The only thing he said to me was, “Thank you, I'm now going to call the White House.”

[end video clip]

ORR: Bahamonde, who spent two days himself in the squalid conditions of the Superdome, denied ever telling Brown the shelter of last resort was prepared for thousands of evacuees.

[begin video clip of Brown's September 27 testimony to the House Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina]

BROWN: Marty later was able to communicate to me the information that, you know, they had plenty of food.

[end video clip]

[begin video clip of Bahamonde's October 20 testimony]

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R-ME): Did you communicate to Michael Brown that there was plenty of food in the Superdome?

BAHAMONDE: I couldn't have been any more clear to him that food and water was a desperate situation at the Superdome.

[end video clip]

ORR: By Day Three, with people still being plucked from rooftops and health conditions deteriorating, Bahamonde e-mailed Brown with an even more urgent plea for help: “The situation is past critical. Estimates are many will die within hours. We are out of food and running out of water at the Dome.” There was no response, but three hours later, Bahamonde got a copy of this note from Brown's press secretary: “It is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner. Restaurants are getting busy.” Brown has yet to tell his story to the Senate, but when he does he'll face some tough new questions about the discrepancies and his role in the botched response to Katrina. Bob Orr, CBS News, Capitol Hill.