Tuesday, June 01, 2010

NYT on Billy Nungesser

An excerpt from the NY Times:

Within hours of the April 20 explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, Mr. Nungesser, 51, became a go-to guy for the news media. In the ensuing weeks, he has turned into the angry everyman of the oil spill, whether delivering a broadside against the government and BP’s response efforts on CNN or standing in the gymnasium of Boothville-Venice Elementary School (Home of the Oilers!) before an anxious crowd of shrimpers and fishermen.

“I know it’s going to be rough,” he said to the crowd in a speech that sounded at times like a locker room pep talk. “I know everything’s not going to go our way. But they’re not going to beat us.”

“Go get ’em, Billy,” someone shouted from the bleachers.

To hear Mr. Nungesser tell it, the big boys — BP, the Coast Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers — have all been better at pointing fingers than solving problems.

Along with Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Mr. Nungesser has been a dogged advocate for a plan to build barrier islands out of dredged material to keep the oil off the shores.

There are a number of experts, including the Army Corps of Engineers, who think this is a bad idea, citing cost, time and environmental impact. In Mr. Nungesser’s gospel, that kind of response, even if it turns out to be true, is only half an answer. Come up with a better idea, he tells critics, or keep your reservations to yourself.

“These guys have no clue and no ability to think outside the box,” he said at the morning staff meeting.

Despite an affinity for the spotlight, Mr. Nungesser is a hard man to pin down. Between a cellphone that buzzes like an angry wasp, an unending string of interview requests, a visit by the president and the actual work of managing the parish, it is nearly impossible to slow him down long enough to confirm some basic biographical facts.

For example: How did Mr. Nungesser come to own an elk ranch in the parish?

The elk, he said late Thursday night over a 10-minute dinner of Sun Chips and soda, were bought from a man in Nebraska with the money he got from selling his house to his sister when he went to live in a shipping container.

Mr. Nungesser throws out sentences like that, and before one has a chance to ask him to elaborate, he is back on the phone, talking to a state trooper or a parish official or his fiancée, who needs to know that a television camera crew was following him home that night.

Back to the shipping container.

“I had a Jacuzzi,” he clarified. “It was nice.”

In his 20s and early 30s, Mr. Nungesser worked for his father’s business, a catering company that served offshore drilling rigs. In 1991, before he got involved with the elk (he sells the velvet off the antlers for arthritis medicine), Mr. Nungesser realized that metal shipping containers could be modified and used as living quarters for workers on offshore rigs.

He had a hard time at first selling the idea to investors, mainly friends and friends of friends, and so he moved into a container himself. The company, General Marine Leasing, eventually reached $20 million in sales, and now, instead of a shipping container, he lives on a palatial estate built on a man-made hill in front of an artificial lake.

Mr. Nungesser rode out Hurricane Katrina on this estate and decided to run for parish president as a Republican in 2006, he said, out of frustration over the local response to the recovery.

It was a big decision. A run for state representative in his early 20s had left him cynical about politics, despite his pedigree: his father was the chairman of the State Republican Party when there was not much of one to speak of, and he was the chief of staff for Gov. David C. Treen, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, in the early 1980s.

Mr. Nungesser’s preparations for public office had come from running a business, an experience that made him good at laying into uncooperative oil companies but not always agile when it came to the give and take of a democracy.

“In private business, Billy was, in essence, the chief cook and bottle washer,” said Anthony Buras, a member of the parish council. “In the private business mentality, you move forward the minute you make a decision. Sometimes in government that isn’t always doable. There have been some times where there’s been some conflict with that.”

Mr. Nungesser’s impatience with the parish council is not something he takes pains to hide, railing against “the egos and the jealousy” of his political opponents with the same irritation he displays when criticizing the response to the oil spill.

That is the mode he seems to enjoy most, and one he was fully engaged in late Thursday night on the front porch of the Myrtle Grove Marina.

He had just taken a regiment of journalists out in boats to see oiled pelicans, and now, his clothes drenched from a sudden downpour, he was balancing a flurry of phone calls with the demands of the news media.

Standing in white shrimp boots that he called his Cajun Reeboks, he kept up the phone conversation while hooking up his microphone for a CNN interview like a seasoned correspondent.

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