WASHINGTON, Oct. 20 - It was on the day before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, after thousands of people had packed the Superdome, that the lone FEMA worker in New Orleans sent his first plea for help.
"Issues developing at the Superdome," the official, Marty J. Bahamonde, wrote in an agency e-mail message released Thursday by Congressional investigators. "The medical staff at the dome says they will run out of oxygen in about two hours."
Mr. Bahamonde sent a series of messages as the hours and days passed, desperation growing. Most startling, he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday, was that his supervisors in Washington did not seem to understand. In a series of e-mail messages in which he warned of worsening problems, he was told that the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency needed time to eat dinner at a restaurant in Baton Rouge, La., and to have a television interview.
"It was sad, it was inhumane, it was heartbreaking, and it was so wrong," Mr. Bahamonde said of the conditions and the response. "There was a systematic failure at all levels of government to understand the magnitude of the situation."
A spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, William R. Knocke, said Mr. Bahamonde was a respected official and did not contest his testimony. He said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was also frustrated at the response that Mr. Bahamonde was reporting.
Mr. Bahamonde's being the sole FEMA representative in New Orleans for the storm was unintentional, he said. He drove there on Aug. 27, two days before the storm hit, to introduce himself to City Hall officials. Though instructed by officials in Washington to leave, he stayed behind because of traffic jams.
Mr. Bahamonde stayed near the Superdome, where he had been told that a FEMA medical team, as well as 360,000 ready-to-eat meals and 15 water trucks, were being sent ahead of the storm.
None of that turned out to be true. Five water trucks and 40,000 meals were in place. The medical team did not arrive until Aug. 30, the day after the hurricane hit.
The situation worsened by late morning on Aug. 29, when Mr. Bahamonde learned that the 17th Street Canal levee had failed and that the city was flooding. An e-mail message at 1:38 p.m. to FEMA headquarters described the levee break, as well as reports that an estimated 12,000 people were at the Superdome and that 30,000 tourists were stuck in the city.
"North side of city under est. 11' water in heavy residential area," the message said, attributing the information to Mr. Bahamonde.
Mr. Chertoff has often said he did not know about the levee break and flooding until Aug. 30, explaining in part why he went to a meeting that day in Atlanta on avian flu.
"That is incredible," Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said about the communications delay.
Mr. Levin questioned Mr. Bahamonde about testimony last month by the former director of the emergency agency, Michael D. Brown, that a dozen agency employees were in New Orleans before the storm, including an emergency response team.
"How many FEMA people were pre-positioned at the Superdome or in New Orleans?" Mr. Levin asked.
"One," Mr. Bahamonde said.
"And that was?"
On Aug. 31, Mr. Bahamonde decided to send an e-mail message directly to Mr. Brown.
"I know you know, the situation is past critical," Mr. Bahamonde wrote. "Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water."'
An aide to Mr. Brown responded hours later that the director would need a restaurant in Baton Rouge that night. "It is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner," the message said.