Into the Gulf, Day 9: Field Notes from an EPA Meeting

Daily reports on the BP disaster on the Gulf

At Table Three, the Louisiana Spirit Coastal Recovery Counseling Program is handing out blue rubber “stress balls,” though I don’t see a lot of fishermen squeezing the little toys. I take one anyway, occasionally tossing it in the air as I walk around the EPA meeting that is being held just around the corner from where I’m staying, in the Buras Auditorium, a place that usually holds high school productions of “the Importance of Being Earnest” but today houses the Surgeon General, hundreds of angry fishermen, and half the reporters in the known world.

I am not acting as a reporter tonight but as a naturalist and, having pocketed my stress ball, I scribble notes and sketches in my journal, noting characteristics in the way of my breed. You can tell the real reporters, even when they are not jamming a microphone in someone’s face, because they are generally better looking than regular humans, and they speak with vaguely English accents, though most just hail (to paraphrase Roth’s Lonoff) from the country of pretentious.

Billy Nungesser, the president of Plaquemines Parish, of which Buras is a part, has become a lead character in the spill drama, in part courtesy of much face time with Anderson Cooper, and has tried to fashion himself as the voice of the people. He kicks off the meeting with a short, actually a very short, introduction. Nungesser has a kind of Colombo affect, disheveled, occasionally apologetic about his own flaws in a way that really carries some charm and effectiveness, with sleeves rolled up in a way that says, “I’m still one of you even if I’ve been on TV a lot lately.” There is a strategy contained in the brevity of his speech, and his quick dispersing of the larger group into smaller ones, each “need” -- counseling, complaints about not being chosen for the Vessel of Opportunity program, compensation questions -- being serviced at different fold-out tables. You get the feeling that if the larger group were to stay large for very long this thing could get out of hand. Already there is some yelling coming from the back of the auditorium, rabble rousing cries of dissent led by one pony-tailed former charter fisherman who seems to be at least partly enjoying the attention.

Billy Nungesser by David Gessner.

Nungesser briskly addresses a couple of the pressing issues. The first is BP’s hiring of outsiders, instead of first turning to those with a local address. The second is the word that BP is estimating how long it will be until things are “back to normal,” and beginning to consider offering settlement packages of two years, perhaps, or three. Nungesser assures them that he is on their side and cautions against jumping at these packages, despite their short-term attractiveness. And finally, he addresses a newly emerging fact that sparks more yelling from the back, the fact that any work they have already done for BP will now work against their overall compensation.

Sweating, gesticulating, apologizing, Nungesser quells what, led by another, might have turned into something close to a riot. Then he hands things off to the Surgeon General, Regina Bejamin, who also plays the “I am one of you” card, which is a little harder sell if you are a large African American woman in what looks like a white naval costume out of Gilbert and Sullivan. I have never really understood why our chief doctor is a “General” and now I’m wondering if “Admiral” wouldn’t be more apt. But whatever her rank, she too works the crowd well, and when I hear she is from Bayou la Batre, the fishing village I visited in Alabama, I understand that she really is part of this crowd.

She is unfailingly chipper during her talk, and remains so when I visit with her after we all break up -- jolly even -- and has a talent that may or may not be just political, that of lavishing attention on you when you talk, or at least appearing to, a talent I have seen before in the best politicians. We talk for ten minutes or so and when I say goodbye she says, “Let me get your name -- I’m going to look for your byline.” Of course she doesn’t actually scribble my name down, an assistant in the same silly white costume does that, but I am effectively charmed, it never having occurred to me that I had something called a “byline” before.

Less upbeat is Timmy, the Vietnamese fisherman who is distraught over the news that BP is already talking about full settlements. He stands with his arms crossed, his face stern and thoughtful.

“What worries me is when they talk about this as being over. When they talk about a ‘final’ settlement package and say they will now estimate how long it will take for the waters and fish to be back to normal. But how can they know that now? They say they will pay us for two years. But what if it takes five or ten years until people want to buy our fish again?”

I decide to put Timmy’s question to Nungesser, who is in front of the room, leaning against a table, handling questions from a vociferous group of fishermen and fishermen’s wives. There is no real line, just a spread-out gang, and it takes me a while to slip my question in, but when I do he turns the high beams of his attention on me. He leans closer, looking like an animated and amiable butcher, and, waving his hands to make his points, launches into this answer:

“That’s exactly why you don’t jump at the packages. We can’t have their scientists, their people, tell us when it’s going to be better. We have to have our own studies, our own scientists, and that will take some time. We can’t be rushed into this thing….”

He goes on, sounding pretty reasonable and caring. I have no idea what skeletons are in his closet -- all politicians have them, right? -- and I know he made some real missteps early on in the crisis, and some people say he has continued to make them, but if I were to judge the man just from tonight he would pass with flying colors.

As the auditorium gradually empties out, I take a seat and sketch those who remain. After a while I call it quits too, and take the short walk over to the Black Pearl, the only restaurant around, which is packed from the meeting. I take a seat at the bar next to a small, intense man with a gold cross dangling from his neck, who is staring hard up at the TV. Soon I am, too, since it proves to be an early documentary (by National Geographic, I think) about the Deepwater explosion and spill. Half the bar is watching, in fact, though most of us are straining to read the captions, since the volume is off. What I notice right away is that the language bristles with military phrases -- with attack, charge, war. In this language, the cropduster spraying the dispersants is a World War I flying ace. It is an action film, that’s for sure, and we are rooting for the good guys, as if there were any. Once again, I think of the little boys who made this mess. And who now insist they are the only ones who can be counted on to respond now that it has happened.

My undercooked steak, comes and between bites I get in a conversation with my neighbor. It turns out he is an ex-professional bullrider who now teaches teenage boys to ride, with an emphasis on the Christian aspects of the sport.

“Any time a kid gets on a bull in the first place it shows they are a man. It is a tremendous act of faith and courage. It’s more than 90% of the people in the world will do. Some people can stay on a bull for eight seconds, but not many can do that and make it look pretty. My job is to help these kids, and if they have a passion and want to do it, to teach them to do it in the safest and best way possible. If they’re doing it for the girls, or for other reasons, then they better not do it. They better do it from the heart.

“I’m interested in building character both inside and outside the ring. I’ve been down some bad roads, and I want to make sure these kids do it different. These are some of the best Christian kids I know. Fear is probably the biggest factor in stopping us from doing what we do. And every time these kids climb on a bull they are fighting fear and showing faith.”

I tell him that it doesn’t sound so different than teaching writing. But while faith is important in my game, too, I admit to my relative godlessness.

“It’s okay,” he says. “God, like you, came from out of town…”

It’s pretty cryptic, and I have no idea what he means really, but I scribble it down in my journal anyway.

It is only when my new friend turns back to the TV that his faith deserts him a little.

“What I seen a couple of years was a grandfather and a son and a grandson, going down a boat in the river, going duck hunting. And right off the bat it struck me that this was something the man had done with his son his whole life and now his son has his son -- the grandson -- and is doing the same thing, and it’s something that they’re going to do every year. Until this. And that way of life could very well end. If we can’t keep this stuff out of our marshes, we’re done.”

We talk a while more and then I finish my steak and say goodbye. I take one last walk down to the river to say goodbye. I’m going to miss this place, I think. I have no true connection to Buras, of course, to this part of the country, and when I leave, after visiting New Orleans for a couple of days, I will be heading home to my wife and daughter and we will buy our first home. So I have every reason to get back, and I’m anxious to do so. But I feel a strange tug in the other direction, too, and I really hate leaving here. Maybe, at this moment in time we are all a part of Plaquemines Parish. Okay, maybe not -- that’s overstatement if not pure bunk. But it is this f___ed up place in this f___ed up time, that I can say, without fear of overstatement, that we are all part of.

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