Fiery La. Politician Leads Fight To Clean Up Oil
One of the areas hardest hit by the BP oil spill is Louisiana's Plaquemines Parish. Located at the state's southernmost end, it runs along the Mississippi for 70 miles as the mighty river empties out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Parish residents are weary after more than six weeks of fighting to keep the oil out of their prized marshlands.
But they have something in their arsenal that other parishes don't: Billy Nungesser. The parish president is a newcomer to politics who isn't afraid to take on BP or the Coast Guard to save the livelihood of his home.
A Forceful Advocate
Nungesser is 51 years old, born in New Orleans, by his own admission 90 pounds overweight, independently wealthy, and quite the force to be reckoned with.
One minute he's at the marina in Venice, La., chewing out a reticent Coast Guard official: "We've got to push them into it the right way. I see the passion in your eyes. I know you want to get this thing done."
The next he's sitting in the parish's emergency management center, ordering his staff to ignore BP and put parish equipment out in the water to suck up the oil: "I should have told them to get the hell out of the way two weeks ago, but we are putting [this] equipment and we're putting the skimmers in the water. I don't give a s - - - what anybody says. We're losing this battle."
Turn on the radio or TV, and chances are good you'll find Nungesser in front of a microphone or camera. He seems to have as big a supply of heavily starched white shirts as CNN's Anderson Cooper has tight black T-shirts. Nungesser and his boisterous BP bashing are a regular highlight on Cooper's nightly show.
"It's going farther and farther in the marsh every day, and we're doing absolutely nothing but watching it destroy our livelihood and our marshes. Shame on you BP," he said on a recent show.
Filling A Political Void
Nungesser says he didn't set out to grab the spotlight. But he says other than Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, he wasn't hearing any other local official step up to the job.
That's why he got into politics in the first place. Disgusted by the local response to Hurricane Katrina, Nungesser ran for parish president and hasn't stopped running since. He says he gets about three hours of sleep a night.
"I got 4 1/2 one night, and I did get to go see my mom once. It's been a marathon," he says.
Nungesser has high blood pressure and just postponed his wedding again. The first time was because of Katrina; then his election campaign; now this. He says he was married once before: for nine months, to a "girl from Mineral Wells, Texas -- wrong girl.
"No sense in staying in it when you realize it's wrong," he says.
I think I speak the truth. ... [My] dad always told me as long as I've got right on my side, you can't do no wrong. Do the right thing and you go to bed at night feeling good about it.
He has been engaged to Cher Taffaro for five years. She runs his Facebook page, which is closing in on 4,000 friends.
That doesn't mean Nungesser doesn't have enemies. Some council members don't like his confrontational style. And he is a rich man with plenty of business interests. He made his fortune converting old shipping containers into housing for oil-rig workers.
"I dropped out of LSU. My mama gave me $8,500 I had left over from college, and I bought an old container, and I put six bunks, a rice cooker and a wok, and I rented it to a company to house six Vietnamese to paint a rig," Nungesser says.
His company went public in 2001. Three years later, he retired.
Trying To Do The Right Thing
At the Fill-A-Sack, the only gas station in Boothville, at the southern end of the parish, a huge sign out on the road reads: "Thanks Billy and Great Job President Nungesser."
Station owner Bruce Gasquet says anyone who doesn't like Nungesser is just jealous of him.
"First-class man. He's trying to do the right thing, but everybody's dragging him down like a ton of bricks," Gasquet says.
He is referring to Nungesser's unrelenting campaign to build miles of sand berms off the shoreline to hold back the oil. Nungesser and Jindal, the governor, have been fighting for the plan for weeks. They finally got approval last week, and President Obama even ordered BP to pay for the project.
Nungesser, who's demanding that both Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen and BP CEO Tony Hayward resign, says he doesn't regret being either pushy or loud.
"I think I speak the truth. ... [My] dad always told me as long as I've got right on my side, you can't do no wrong. Do the right thing and you go to bed at night feeling good about it," Nungesser says.
And hopefully, that means he can get more than three hours of sleep soon.
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