BP spill: what the locals are doing

The ruined Louisiana marshes remain off limits, but locals gather at a fund-raiser in New Orleans’ Vaughan’s Bar and work out what they can do, as the oil spreads ever eastwards
Jim Gabour
8 July 2010

The president of one of the parishes (Louisiana’s counties) most affected by the BP spill was guest of honor at a fund-raiser in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood on the American 4th of July holiday.  Billy Nungesser of Plaquemines was invited to a benefit raising money for fishermen at the legendary Vaughan’s Bar at the edge of the Upper Ninth Ward.  For a politician Nungesser seemed quite real, answering any and all questions, quaffing beers and shaking hands all around, acting genuinely grateful for anything offered that would help his people.  Of course his name is being mentioned prominently as the front-runner in the upcoming state Lieutenant Governor’s race, and he would like to hear it mentioned even more frequently and loudly.

The man does get his share of media attention, especially with CNN, but he seems to be using the public eye to gather popular momentum and raise money to alleviate the parish’s deterioration under the petroleum onslaught.  In spite of being a Republican, Nungesser has been documented actually performing positive constructive acts himself, getting his hands dirty literally and metaphorically, rather than watching from Washington and critiquing others’ efforts, as has seemed typical of others of his political affiliation. 

He has already gathered enough funding to start building small new protected islands for nesting pelicans in the Barataria pass.  At Vaughan’s he told of touring the existing islands a week earlier to see the pelicans abandoning ground nests, because oil had already washed totally over the shallow sand bars, coating the surface and any living vegetation.  To keep out of the muck, the large birds had adapted, and actually built makeshift nests in the few scraggly trees that stick up from the reeds and bushes along the shore.  The problem, he said, is that if a chick falls from a nest to the ground, which frequently happens, they are instantly coated in oil and suffocate.

Animal distress stories are all too prevalent in the current situation. 

On a personal note, myself being an urban dweller, seemingly impotent in the face of the magnitude and remote location of this disaster, I bought a “Defend Our Coast” hat and shirt (proceeds to save the parish’s wildlife) and joined others giving crowd reinforcement to still photos and TV soundbites for the attendant media sorts.  We all figured that anything that will demonstrate the widespread support to spur Gulf politicians forward more aggressively, to make them act decisively and immediately to keep the coastal communities alive, is worth the trouble. 


'Defend our coast' T-shirt


The block party also gathered donations for food to be shipped to the coast, to those whose livelihoods have been threatened.  Feeding families through larger organized efforts is one of the few things locals can actively do at the moment, as people uninvolved with cleanup are, as a rule, not being allowed anywhere near the spill residue.  Up until the time of the party, to see the tar balls and oil mats and shiny water, one needed to book a tourist hotel room or condominium in Biloxi, or Gulf Shores, or Pensacola, or Panama City Beach.  Ever eastwards.  The ruined Louisiana marshes remained, for the most part, off limits.

Unfortunately, as of 5 July, the easterly/southeasterly wind shift brought about by the tail of Hurricane Alex changed the game.  The unthinkable happened.  In spite of all the booms and dozens of aligned barges in the passes, tar balls have made their way through Lake Borgne and the Rigolets passes, and into the first reaches of Lake Ponchartrain at the city of Slidell. 

By way of geography, the lake is New Orleans’ northern border.  The city has spent the last twenty-five years successfully working to clean up city drainage runoff, and has re-made Ponchartrain into the productive fishing and recreational grounds it once was.   Yes, New Orleanians had been decrying the coastal pollution, but no one ever dreamed the oil could actually infringe the city limits.  And yet it is here.

One private group down in the parish took matters into its own hands, eventually with the local government’s blessing and support:  the Plaquemines Parish Inland Waterways Strike Force.  They invented themselves, and demanded credible license to act.  Nungesser gave it to them, as he has part interest in a Marina that has access to the spill zone, and announced last week that:  “For more than a month, the Plaquemines Parish Inland Waterways Strike Force has been using Myrtle Grove as a launching point, due to its proximity to the oil, at no charge.”

The Strike Force was the group responsible for monitoring initial BP clean-up forces and forcing them to begin taking care as they trod nesting grounds, rather than continue crushing nestlings and eggs under foot and wheel as they had been doing in the early stages of the action.

BP itself is now renting slips and use of the boat launch at Myrtle Grove, side-by-side with the Force.

But back in the tenuous pre-oil reality of the 4th, things at the Vaughan’s “Save the Wildlife” rally began to live up to its name around 4pm as the Prince Albert “The Dog Man” & His Royal Knights came to the tiny stage, and chef Big Chris and owner Cindy Wood began ladling out the food, proving once again that even among native New Orleanians, it is very difficult to find someone who can commiserate a disaster, dance a two-step, and eat a bowl of gumbo, all at the same time.  This is, after all, New Orleans, and hurricane parties have been de rigueur for centuries.


Vaughans bar


Native-American/Cajun traiteur/singer/songwriter/mojo-man Coco Robicheaux arrived late in the afternoon from the Yellow Moon Café, just one block away, with the lyrics to a new song in hand, his offering to augment the occasion.  He’d written the words sitting at the Moon’s bar and watching spill news reports.  Billy Nungesser accepted a copy and swore he’d help get it recorded.

People were singing the song from the moment lyric sheets appeared – everybody in this town knows the tune:

“The New Battle of New Orleans”
Music from a traditional fiddle tune called "8th of January"
Lyrics Copyright ©2010 Coco Robicheaux

Used by permission

In 20 and 10 well, we took a little trip:
From jolly old England to the mighty Mississip’.
We brought a lotta drills - we brought a lotta green:
We bought us up an oilfield just south of New Orleans.

Old Halliburton said we could take ‘em by surprise
If we blew us up an oil well and spit it in their eyes.
We held our fire till we clogged that well
But when we blew it up, well, they really gave us hell.

We blew that rig and the oil kept a comin’,
Twice as many barrels as there was a while ago.
We let it blow till the oil was a’runnin’,
Up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico.

2nd VERSE:
We fired that rig till the valves melted down,
Then Boudreau grabbed an alligator
And we sent him underground.
We filled him up with pampers and we stuffed him in the line,
And when he shut the leak down that gator lost his mind.

We fired that rig and the oil kept a comin’
Twice as many barrels as there was a while ago.
Oil washed up and now the seafood’s a comin’,
All the way from China to the Gulf of Mexico.


Oil ran thru the marshes and it ran thru the bayous,

It ran through the lakes where a rabbit wouldn’t go.

BP ran so fast that the feds couldn’t catch ‘em,

Up the Mississippi from the Gulf of Mexico.




* * *


In the end it was a good party.  Folks in the neighborhood ate and drank and danced and sang, a nice chunk of money went into Plaquemines Parish’s Wildlife Fund, and more was dedicated to furnishing food for hungry families down the bayou.  This deep generosity welled up from a section of New Orleans that had itself suffered greatly, just five years ago.

And now we find the oil at our own doorstep.


We all do what we can, hoping to save the wild life.

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