Dispatches From the Oil Spill

Bobby Jindal, Billy Nungesser, and Louisiana's Politics of Indignation
Notes from different corners of the world.
June 18 2010 12:52 PM

Dispatches From the Oil Spill

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Billy Nungesser, president of Plaquemines Parish.
Billy Nungesser

BELLE CHASSE, La.—The time has come, Jesse Jackson intones, for us to stand, link hands, and pray for Billy Nungesser. "The oil is gushing, the storm clouds are rising, and the sun is very hot," he says in his rich baritone mumble. After pausing to put in a good word for "the seniors who need medicine because they can't breathe because of asthma," Jackson winds his way back to Nungesser, the Plaquemines Parish president. "Be with Billy today," he requests of the Lord. "Give him restoration, health, and strength. This is not a one-day journey."

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Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

When he came to Plaquemines Parish's emergency operation center Thursday morning, Nungesser looked like a man in need of restoration, health, and eight hours of sleep. Following a typically beseeching segment on Good Morning America—"Everyone involved, including the president, needs to look everybody in America in the eye and say, 'I am doing everything physically possible to save coastal Louisiana' "—Nungesser made it through a 20-minute all-hands meeting before going home sick. Jesse Jackson will have to wait for his audience with the oil spill's breakout star. (In the meantime, Jackson told the remaining staff that he wants to help the least fortunate among those who've been affected by the oil spill, the people "fetching the minnows and shucking the oysters.")

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Nungesser is popular with celebrities, his constituents, and cable-TV bookers for the same reason: his righteous anger. Yes, the 51-year-old parish president has become Anderson Cooper's nightly comrade-in-outrage because he gives good soundbite. (Some of his greatest hits: calling on Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen to resign, telling a Senate subcommittee that he's "spent more time fighting the officials of BP and the Coast Guard than fighting the oil," and accusing BP workers of killing baby brown pelicans.) But coastal Louisiana's folksiest spleen-venter also exudes love and concern for the place he governs. He delivers the same message to his staff that he gives to the cable networks: In the battle against the oil, "We're not winning, guys. We're losing horribly." By hammering that talking point, Nungesser has kept cameras pointed at Plaquemines Parish, ensuring his community is first in line for oil remediation and potentially winning support for projects designed to preserve the state's imperiled wetlands.

Indignation has been the go-to rhetorical strategy in Louisiana since the state got battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Five years ago, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin railed against bureaucratic inaction. Nagin's complaints about George W. Bush and FEMA, however, didn't win him much sympathy, mostly because it wasn't clear that the mayor himself was doing anything substantive to push the recovery forward.

Nungesser, along with Republican Rep. Joseph Cao of New Orleans, is part of a cohort of Louisianans inspired to run for office by the failures of politicians like Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco during Katrina. The state's current governor, Bobby Jindal, showed that he learned from Blanco's unpreparedness, overseeing a relatively competent and orderly evacuation for Hurricane Gustav in 2008. The oil spill has again pointed up Jindal's strengths as an executive: his vigilance in a time of crisis and his command of the facts. And during this particular crisis, the governor has found there's a whole lot to be angry about. On Thursday, Jindal bridled at the Coast Guard's grounding of the barges he'd enlisted to vacuum up oil. (It wanted to make sure the barges had fire extinguishers, among other equipment.) "Every time you talk to someone different at the Coast Guard, you get a different answer," he groused.

It's no accident that Nungesser and Jindal have been spending a lot of time together: They're both going after the same thing in the same way. Wherever there was a camera rolling, the governor and the parish president pushed for funding of coastal restoration projects, in particular a plan to build more than 100 miles of sand berms in an attempt to protect the state's marshland. The White House has greased Louisiana's squeaky wheels, mandating that BP pay $360 million to construct six of the berms. The dredging has already begun, and Jindal hasn't hesitated to declare the project a success.

The fast-tracked approval of their sand-defense system is a testament to Jindal's and Nungesser's political skills. Still, it's not at all clear that the berms will work. Coastal ecologist Rob Young, one of many sand skeptics, points out that the project hasn't been subjected to an environmental review, that the dredging required will damage marine ecosystems, that it might not do much to stop oil from entering marshland, and that piling up giant walls of sand could cause erosion rather than prevent it.

Stopping and thinking, though, is a luxury that the spill zone's leading politicos claim they don't have. Nungesser told Good Morning America on Thursday that it was imperative to "get people out the way, get somebody on the ground … [and] go get that oil whatever it takes." In an earlier interview with ABC, he explained that "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?' "

Considering Louisiana's recent history, and the circumstances of Nungesser's political awakening, his do-something attitude makes sense. After Katrina, government officials passed around blame while individuals and neighborhood groups took responsibility for the substance of rebuilding. After the oil spill stops oozing, nobody will be able to say that Billy Nungesser failed to take action.

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