Person of the Week: Billy Nungesser

Politician fiercely trying to protect his part of Louisiana from the oil spill.

May 28, 2010, 3:58 PM

May 28, 2010— -- Louisiana parish leader Billy Nungesser recently captained an airboat touring the oil-soaked marshes. In a sense, he's been the captain of so much there.

"I broke down and cried, and then I called the governor and said, 'Governor, we have a problem.'"

Nungesser, a Republican, is the president of Plaquemines Parish, the first part of the Gulf Coast to get hit by oil. He reached his boiling point when he saw oil-covered pelicans dying in the fragile marshland.

"They were laying in the marsh, trying to wash their feathers off," Nungesser said. "It looked like they couldn't understand why they weren't getting clean.

That's when he knew that he would be one of the first to sound the alarm about the scope of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. His concern quickly turned to anger.

On television and in newspapers, he's criticized the federal government and BP, the company responsible for the spill.

"You lay in bed and the last thing you think about before you go to sleep is, 'What else can I do, what else can I do to save this?'" Nungesser said. "You lose it. You really do."

Nungesser looks at the surviving pelicans sitting atop the brush. The ground beneath them is stained from oil. The booms meant to stop the oil are soaked.

"The lesson learned here is we lost this battle," he said. "Now, if we're lucky, they may survive."

'Worse Than Katrina'

For weeks, Nungesser asked for more booms, for more manpower, for more attention from the White House.

"See this sticky? Imagine this stuck in your feathers," Nungesser said with oil in his hands. "I'd go nuts trying to wash this out with shampoo."

Nungesser said many people don't realize that once the oil soaks the marshes, it will be there for years.

With Hurricane Katrina, the people here have already proven they're survivors.

A Louisiana native, Nungesser has helped save his state before. He led his parish's recovery from Hurricane Katrina and Ivan, but the oil spill might be worse.

"This will be a lot longer recovery than Katrina," he said. "You got people that are scared to death: What are their kids going to do? What are they going to do?"

Nungesser knows all too well the relationship of oil to people's livelihoods. Nungesser made his living running a business that supplied offshore housing and catering for those working on oil rigs. His family ran a seafood canning company.

Now, Nungesser is hoping to save his state with a $350 million plan that would build a wall of sand around Louisiana's barrier islands, an effort to protect the marshes. He and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a fellow Republican, have been promoting the plan. Portions of it were approved by the Coast Guard this week.

Back on the boat, Nungesser finished his tour, passing by a pelican whose belly was painted an oily brown.

He got off the boat and on the way home visited a volunteer who spent his nights on a barge, checking for oil at first light.

"You know what? When someone says, 'I'm doing a great job,' this is the guy [who] is doing a great job," he said as he pointed to the watchman.

Sleepless Nights

Nungesser took his boots off. They were full of water after another long day for this parish president who's been getting three hours of sleep a night.

He keeps going, inspired by his late father who loved Louisiana and who died broken hearted from Hurricane Katrina, Nungesser said.

"He'd be proud of me," Nungesser said of his dad. "He used to tell me, 'As long as you've got right on your side, keep doing it and in the end, win or lose, you did the right thing.'"

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