Gulf Watch: Goodbyes, grants and glaring incompetence: The news from La.

Some big news today from Louisiana on post-Katrina reconstruction:

* First of all, Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) bowed out of Louisiana's gubernatorial race yesterday, just six weeks from the start of the legislative session. In an address televised from the governor's mansion, the state's first female chief executive said:

After much thought and prayer, I have decided that I will not seek reelection as your governor.

There is nothing more important to Louisiana's future than a strong recovery, free from politics.

I'm announcing my decision early - well before the legislative session. I'm doing this so we can work without interference from election year politics. Every action in my remaining months in office will be to serve Louisiana's best interest.

Blanco also announced her intention to focus in the upcoming session on what she described as a "bold and sweeping" education agenda.

* Second, the Louisiana Recovery Authority has submitted language to the feds that would change Road Home program rules, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. The changes will allow owners of storm-damaged homes to get their grants more quickly by allowing them to receive the money in lump sums rather than installments from mandatory escrow accounts.

The changes were made at the insistence of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which last week notified Louisiana officials that requiring homeowners to request phased disbursement as each stage of construction was completed violated HUD rules on "compensation" programs, which are supposed to have few strings attached, according to the paper. HUD is expected to OK the changes quickly.

The agency's demands shocked Louisiana officials, who say they had gotten HUD's approval for its program design at every step along the way, the Times-Picayune reports. The state was concerned that paying homeowners a lump sum would leave them vulnerable to predatory mortgage companies and contractors, and would remove the incentive to rebuild.

More than 115,000 people have applied for Road Home aid to date, but only about 3,000 have closed their grants.

*And last but certainly not least, an official report by the state of Louisiana into the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina blames the disaster on decades of incompetence by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Times-Picayune reports:

In a sweeping indictment of Corps stewardship, the report alleges that agency supervisors ignored increases in the threat level for their project, knowingly built levees and floodwalls lower than congressionally mandated, failed to detect or ignored glaring errors during the review process, underestimated the impact of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet on the city's defenses, and failed to properly maintain the system.

The report, conducted by Team Louisiana at the request of the Department of Transportation and Development, echoes many points made in other probes last year, including that of the Independent Levee Investigation Team, led by the University of California-Berkeley, and the interim report from the Corps' own Independent Performance and Evaluation Team.

While earlier efforts to pinpoint what went wrong concentrated on technical aspects of the structural failures, the Louisiana State University-based Team Louisiana worked to identify the decisions that caused those failures. They include:

-- The Corps ignored two increases in the severity of the model storm that the system was designed to protect against, thus knowingly failing its 1965 congressional charge to protect the city against "the most severe combination of meteorological conditions reasonably expected."

-- In 1985, the head of the project ordered his staff to ignore an official reduction in the elevation of the land they were building on, resulting in the Corps finishing levees and floodwalls that it knew were as much as 2 feet lower than claimed.

-- The Corps failed to maintain the parts of the system properly and ignored advances in engineering knowledge and technology that could have prevented the flood.

The report calls for the state and Congress to hold "8-29 Commissions" to fully investigate the disaster, passage of a federal "Katrina Recovery Bill" to fund coastal restoration and flood protection, and greater transparency on the part of federal and state authorities when discussing flood protection plans.