Former federal disaster chief Michael Brown testified Friday that he notified top White House and Homeland Security officials on the day that Hurricane Katrina roared ashore that "we were realizing our worst nightmare" and New Orleans was seriously flooding.
He dismissed as "just baloney" and "a little disingenuous" claims by agency officials that they didn't know about the severity of the damage until the next day.
Testifying before a Senate committee, Brown said he agreed with members who characterized him as a scapegoat. "I feel somewhat abandoned," said Brown, who quit under fire as chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency just days after the storm hit.
Brown suggested the administration's fixation with fighting terrorism may have been to blame, in part, for the slow government response.
Because of a focus on terrorism, natural disasters "had become the stepchild of the Department of Homeland Security," Brown said.
Had there been a report that "a terrorist had blown up the 17th Street Canal levee, then everybody would have jumped all over that," Brown said.
The administration's lackluster response to Katrina undermined Americans' confidence in President George W. Bush's leadership abilities and contributed to a decline in his opinion poll ratings.
The storm slammed into New Orleans and the Gulf coast on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29.
Brown said he spoke by phone to a top White House official, he said he believed it was Joe Hagin, "on at least two occasions on that day to inform him of what was going on."
Hagin was with the president, who was vacationing on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, at the time while Brown was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"I think I told him that we were realizing our worst nightmare, that everything we had planned about, worried about, that FEMA, frankly, had worried about for 10 years was coming true," Brown said.
He said he made similar comments in an e-mail message to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.
In an appearance before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that mixed cooperation and confrontation, Brown went far further than he had previously in blaming other elements of the Bush administration for the government's halting reaction to the massive storm. Brown had been widely expected to start naming names of "who knew what the day Katrina hit," CBS News correspondent Susan Roberts reports.
The Aug. 29 maelstrom killed more than 1,300 people, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and caused tens of billions in damage, including widespread destruction in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities.
"There was a cultural clash that didn't recognize the absolute inherent science of preparing for a disaster," he testified. "Any time you break that cycle ... you're doomed to failure."
He added: "The policies and decisions implemented by the DHS put FEMA on a path to failure."
Earlier, the chairwoman of the panel, Sen. Susan Collins, said that FEMA missed early warning signs that emergency response teams were unprepared to handle a catastrophic disaster like Hurricane Katrina.
Brown, who is widely viewed as the public face of the government's missteps during and after the storm, staunchly defended his role and appeared eager to answer any questions, particularly those that shifted the blame elsewhere.
He insisted he provided information to White House and Homeland Security officials the day of the storm. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said he did not know the levees were breached until the following day.
Under pointed questioning by Sen. Joe Lieberman, Brown said several times he could not clearly recall what was said in some of those conversations.
"Do you specifically remember asking Hagin for the White House to take action?" said Lieberman, the Senate panel's top Democrat.
"Nothing specific, I just thought they needed to be aware," Brown answered.
Brown said he preferred going right to the White House rather than having to deal with wading through the "additional bureaucracy" of Homeland Security.
He recounted his success in managing previous disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, fires and the 2003 Columbia space shuttle explosion.
A management audit prepared by Brown months before the Aug. 29 storm showed that the agency had a lack of adequate and consistent situational awareness to size up emergencies, and was unable to properly control inventory and track assets, Collins told fellow committee members.
Collins said the audit also showed that FEMA misunderstood standard response procedures.
Brown's appearance in front of the Senate investigative panel came as new documents reveal that 28 federal, state and local agencies, including the White House, reported levee or embankment failures on Aug. 29, according to a timeline of e-mails, situation updates and weather reports pieced together by Senate Democrats. The documents indicate the Bush administration knew as early as 8:30 a.m. Aug. 29 about levee failures that would ultimately lead to massive flooding of the city and its surrounding parishes.
That litany was at odds with the administration's contention that it didn't know the extent of the problem until much later. At the time, Mr. Bush said, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Mr. Bush and his top aides were fully aware of the massive flooding, and less concerned whether it was caused by levee breaches, overtoppings or failed pumps, all three of which were being reported at the time.
"We knew there was flooding and that's why the No. 1 effort in those early hours was on search and rescue, and saving life and limb," Duffy said.
Democrats said the documents showed there was little excuse for the tardy federal response.
"The first communication came at 8:30 a.m.," said Sen. Joe Lieberman, the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "So it is inexplicable to me how those responsible for the federal response could have woken up Tuesday morning unaware of this obviously catastrophic situation."
The first internal White House communication about levee failures came at 11:13 a.m. on Aug. 29 in a "Katrina Spot Report" by the White House Homeland Security Council, Roberts reports.
"Flooding is significant throughout the region and a levee in New Orleans has reportedly been breached sending 6-8 feet of water throughout the 9th ward area of the city," the internal report said.
Brown, now a private citizen,with Mr. Bush and other top White House officials no longer fall under executive confidentiality protections, a possible signal that his testimony will assign blame elsewhere.
Brown quit FEMA on Sept. 12 after he was relived of his onsite command in the Gulf Coast, and left the federal payroll Nov. 2. He testified in front of a House investigation panel in September.