I spent last Saturday in Plaquemines (pronounced PLAHCK-uh-muns) Parish (Louisiana for County) with the Parish President Billy Nungesser. You've seen Billy on TV. Unless you have one of those 72 inch flat screen TVs, it doesn't do him justice. Billy, that's all anyone calls him. goes about 6'2" and weighs about 325. Maybe more.
Plaquemines Parish is ground zero for these 273 jillion barrels of oil which are threatening to destroy the fisheries and the wetlands. Billy is in the eye of the storm and he IS the storm.
I called Billy on his cell phone and, after explaining what I wanted, he told me to meet him at "Li'l G's" restaurant. I dragged my friends Larry Katz and GOP State Chair Roger Villere (who is also running for Lt. Governor) with me because when you cross the Mississippi River from New Orleans into Plaquemines Parish - you might as well be setting foot on Mars and I wanted some guys who spoke Martian to be at my side.
Here's a basic rule: You go to Plaquemines Parish, you should either be prepared to do what Billy Nungesser wants you to do, or stay out of his sight.
Want an example? Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry was the on-site coordinator of the BP oil spill. According to Billy he told her he needs six barrier islands (which he calls "reaches") to combat the oil coming ashore: "Nothin' but those islands gonna save our wetlands," he says he told her. Adm. Landry told Billy (according to Billy) "Billy, we do not need off-shore barrier islands that are going to wash away."
Yesterday the Coast Guard announced that Adm. Landry "will return to duties as commandant of the 8th Coast Guard District in New Orleans to focus on hurricane season preparations."
Don't tell Billy what he don't need.
Billy's cell phone rings about every 20 seconds. He looks down and either presses the "ignore" button or picks it up and issues some orders, or asks some questions, and then issues some orders. I'm not certain what made him pick up the phone when I called.When Billy expressed his views to the President last Friday, Billy said that Mr. Obama told him, "Billy, I thought you and me were on the same page." Billy told the President, "We are, Mr. President. That's why I asked [BP Chief Operating Officer] Doug Suttles to resign and not choo!"
"It's unexcuseable," he says. "We put together Plaquemines Parish strike force teams; three of them. They gone out and identified all the oil that's comin' ashore." Billy's phone rings and he talks to a person who is negotiating between a wife and her husband who is in jail for ignoring a restraining order.
He hangs up and continues exactly where he left off: "The reason I went irate the last couple of weeks is, the people who are supposed to clean it up have gone out there to assess, re-assess, and try to come up with a plan."
Billy pulls out a piece of paper with one of George S. Patton's famous dicta: "A good plan executed violently and immediately is better than a perfect plan executed next week."
"If I don't have authority by mid-week to deploy these teams," he says, "… then I gotta call the White House."
Billy gets back on the six "reaches." "We need BP to get out there and start buildin' those barrier islands."
I ask if BP isn't - following the President presser on Thursday - taking its orders from the White House.
He talks about wasted resources. Billy tells us about taking a police boat out to Grand Isle to take a look at the oil. He says there were so many boats floating around "it looked like that 'Jaws' movie." His voice gets high: "We out here looking for the shark!" he shouts. "Where's that oil at!" he mimics the people in the boats. "It was comical!"
"There're 60 airboats sitting in the Wilkenson Canal. No drivers," he says picking at the salad a waitress had brought. "Nobody knows how to drive 'em. They just sittin' there. Deployed."
Billy's daddy (also named Billy) was the GOP Chairman of Louisiana for a long time. According to local lore, he had flaming red hair so he was known as the "Red Elephant." When Billy was little, hanging around with his dad, people took to calling him "Pinky" because his hair wasn't as red as his dad's. Everyone knows that story. No one calls Billy "Pinky" any more.
Billy had been named the ABC "Person of the Week." He recalled someone saying, "Your daddy'd be real proud of you."
"I broke down and cried," he said. "My daddy always said, 'do the right thing and the rest will take care of itself.'"
There's going to be a movie about Billy.