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Parish president a critic and a comforter

Louisiana's Billy Nungesser has become the unofficial spokesman for the region hit by the gulf oil spill. He criticizes BP and the federal government even as he seeks to allay constituents' concerns.

July 10, 2010|By Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Venice, La. — He's been called "the face" of the region hit by the gulf oil spill. And that face — jowly, sweaty and angry — seems to be just about everywhere, testifying before a congressional committee, alongside President Obama at oil-stained beaches, or being interviewed, yet again, by Anderson Cooper.

Billy Nungesser is the man the media go to when they need a quotable quote. The response to the oil spill? "Run by a bunch of seventh-graders." BP's plans? "Drawn up on the back of a bar napkin."

After BP CEO Tony Hayward's now infamous comment about wanting his life back, Nungesser told CNN that he'd "like to take him offshore and stick him 10 feet under the water and pull him up with that black all over his face and ask him what that is." Nungesser has even criticized retired Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, head of the government's response to the spill, saying Allen is "not the right man for the job."

To Nungesser, 51, such remarks aren't that remarkable. "It's easier to speak passionately when you've been there and seen that," he said.

That's the Nungesser a nationwide audience sees. For folks here, he has emerged as more than an effective spokesman for Louisianans whose lives have been touched by the worst oil spill in the nation's history. In Plaquemines Parish, where he is president, he's become a comforter and a cheerleader.

He offers blunt assessments of the environmental disaster — "We're dying a slow death" — but also tries to lift the spirits of the 20,000 people here, where livelihoods depend on seafood, oil and tourism.

As a result, the parish's top official — the equivalent of a county mayor — is popular. Off State Highway 23, where signs push creole tomatoes and smoked alligator meat, a Fill-A-Sack gas station marquee proclaims, "Thanks President Nungesser."

In May, hours after inspecting oil-fouled marshes by boat, Nungesser was greeted with applause and whistles by about 250 people in a Venice high school auditorium.

"I know it's going to be rough," he assured worried mothers, broke fishermen and stranded charter boat captains at the forum. "I know everything is not going to go our way." He paused. "They're damned sure not going to ruin our marshlands."

The audience clapped and cheered.

This is typical for the businessman-turned-politician.

"You're seeing Billy as Billy right now," said Keith Hinkley, a Plaquemines councilman who has worked with Nungesser since the latter took office in January 2007. "Anything that Billy gets his hands on, it's 110%."

Nungesser has always been social. Growing up, he was "always talking," said his sister, Heidi Nungesser-Landry. On his 10-block stroll to kindergarten each morning, he would chat up the homemakers on the street. Women were so charmed that on his way home, they'd invite him inside for cookies.

Though Nungesser was the only one of four siblings who didn't graduate from college, he became a millionaire by selling living quarters for offshore oil rig workers. He sold the business in 1998, developed a ranch to raise elk and cattle, and started a therapeutic horse riding camp for children with mental and physical disabilities.

For him, the camp exemplified what he called the best feeling in the world: doing something for someone else.

"I'd sit at night feeling guilty for feeling so good," he said of the camp.

The grounds were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. In the storm's aftermath, Nungesser patrolled the parish on air boats, pulling people out of the water.

"We thought he was dead," his sister recalled. "We couldn't get in touch with him."

He set up trailers on his 25-acre Pointe Celeste property and let people live with him for years after the disaster. In 2008, during Hurricane Gustav, Nungesser was in wading boots again, putting sandbags on top of levies to save areas from flooding.

He decided to run for Plaquemines Parish president because he didn't see anyone on the "front lines" during Katrina. In 2006, he was elected by a 176-vote margin.

Nungesser is no stranger to politics. His father, William Nungesser, was the chairman of the Louisiana Republican Party and also served as chief of staff for former Louisiana Gov. David Treen.

Since his election, Nungesser says, he has gained 90 pounds because he doesn't have time to work out. He sleeps four or five hours a night.

"I hate not to get things done and leave things sitting," he said.

Given his popularity, complaints about Nungesser are rare, though lately, he has been criticized for his involvement with Pointe Celeste Inter Vivos Trust, a blind trust that holds his business assets. The trust has a 50% share of the Myrtle Grove Marina, which BP is renovating for use in cleanup efforts.

Records show that in 2008, he made no more than $5,000 from the earnings of the marina and eight other companies in which the trust has interests. Nungesser said he has no knowledge of the inner workings of the trust. He calls the attacks "politically motivated."

"I have absolutely nothing to hide," he said.

And so he carries on, putting on a brave face even as he continues to criticize BP, the federal government and anyone else he feels isn't helping his parish and state.

In May, he attended a seafood festival and encouraged people to enjoy themselves. Before he mounted the festival stage, he learned that the "top kill" procedure to stop the leaking oil well had failed. But he couldn't bear to tell the people standing in front of him. He told the crowd that, eventually, everything would be OK.

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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