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Nungesser's grit built Louisiana berms following BP spill

Anderson Cooper of CNN accompanied Plaquemines Parish Pres. billy Nungesser out to assess damage from the spill in May 2010
Anderson Cooper of CNN accompanied Plaquemines Parish Pres. billy Nungesser out to assess damage from the spill in May 2010
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

At Monday's halfday-long Gulf Coast Restoration Summit, politicians, government agencies, environmental groups and at least one attorney were represented.

Tim Osborne with NOAA talked about how quickly sea level is rising here, the most in North America, he says, by about 1.327 inches since 2007 alone.

The Gulf Coast is so vulnerable, in fact, that NOAA is now measuring "based on a five-year cycle," Osborne says. And current projections are a rise of 1.5 to 2 inches every year, with a frightening 3.2-foot "relative sea level rise in this century."

All of this points to the elephant in the room, or at least the Republican politicians who drive the discourse, climate change. According to Loyola's Gauthier-St. Martin Chair of Environmental Law, Robert R.M. Verchick, it is "absolutely essential to take climate change" into consideration when discussing sea level rise and the building of higher storm walls.

"You are preparing for a non-analog future. Don't just prepare for a storm surge and then reappropriate(funds)," he says. Verchick says he was working at the EPA during the first Obama Administration.

Other speakers covered creating a gulf economy, responsiveness and preparedness, and coastal priorities. The American Red Cross, Commissioner Wilson Robertson from Fla. and PJ Hahn with Plaquemines Parish also spoke.

Attendance was dramatically reduced from the type of crowd that has been drawn to the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force meetings, especially the first one back in Feb. 2011. That meeting, held at the Marriott on Canal St., attracted then administrator for the EPA, Lisa Jackson to keynote.

By comparison, this week's assemblage only featured one luminary, albeit a potent one much beloved far beyond Plaquemines Parish.

Billy Nungesser told the group of about 120 including this reporter that without his perseverance, the berms around the shoreline of Louisiana probably would not have been built. He shared a story about pushing hard to fight through the red Washington tape that was excluding him from the restoration planning process.

Never a fan of then Restoration leader Adm. Thad Allen, Nungesser sought to bend Pres. Obama's ear and help him see that Allen's way was not the right way. Local leadership, not the Coast Guard's, was the right way to push the restoration forward.

After all, according to Nungesser, BP and the Coast Guard assess that 33 percent of the oil washed ashore into the marshes of his parish.

After pushing to not only be heard but get out to Grand Isle despite initially being barred by the White House, the President would ultimately turn to Allen and say,"I want the decision to go back to Louisiana."

Nungesser, who is about half his former size due to lap band surgery, wasn't pulling a Chris Christie moment. Instead, he used CNN's Anderson Cooper as a bargaining chip.

He threatened to call Cooper if he wasn't allowed out on the boat to Grand Isle to assess damage along with the president and his team.

"The next time you're going to do that," Pres. Obama allegedly said to Nungesser, "call me first."

"I would, Mr. President, but I don't have your number."

The president then told someone to give Nungesser the number.

And that is how Mr. Nungesser went to Washington.

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