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Federal Emergency Management Agency officials did not respond to repeated warnings about deteriorating conditions in New Orleans and the dire need for help as Hurricane Katrina struck, the first FEMA official to arrive conceded Thursday.
Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA regional director, told a Senate panel investigating the government's response to the disaster that he gave regular updates to people in contact with then-FEMA Director Michael Brown as early as Aug. 28, one day before Katrina made landfall.
In most cases, he was met with silence. In an Aug. 29 phone call to Brown informing him that the first levee had broke, Bahamaonde said he received a polite thank you from Brown, who said he would check with the White House.
"I think there was a systematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magnitude of the situation," Bahamonde said.
The testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee contradicted Brown, who has said he wasn't fully aware of the dire conditions until days later and that local officials were most responsible for the sluggish response.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the panel, decried the testimony and e-mail released by Bahamonde on Thursday as illustrating "a complete disconnect between senior officials and the reality of the situation."
"His urgent reports did not appear to prompt an urgent response," Collins said.