School leader spent summer fighting oil

Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 25, 2010

By David Vitrano


LUTCHER – A common assignment for students during the first few days of a new school year is to write an essay on what they did during their summer vacation.

If St. James Parish Superintendent Alonzo Luce had to complete such an assignment, his story would be more interesting than most.

As battalion commander of the 528th Engineering Battalion of the Louisiana Army National Guard, Luce spent the bulk of the summer months fighting a foe he had never counted on, oil leaking from the blown-out Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

“That was a new one for the Guard,” he said.

It was new but not totally unexpected for the 25-year soldier who has previously battled everything from the destruction of hurricanes to insurgents in Afghanistan.

In May Luce and his unit were called to the coast to help with sandbagging operations. Eventually, he moved to a communications position.

“I got asked to go to Houma where the BP headquarters is located,” he said. “We had a team in Houma who made sure the information got out,” he said.

Although most of his time was spent there, Luce did get the occasional chance to see the damage up close.

“I’ll be honest,” he said, “When we would go and look, they did a great job of fighting the oil back in the water.”

He added, “I only saw very limited places where it had hit land.”

While the National Guard played an invaluable role in that fight, Luce believes their role took on new meaning when taken in context. The BP workers came from all over the globe and Coast Guard members from across the nation, but the National Guard were the home team and could communicate with the local population on their own terms.

“I think that was a real big positive thing in the process,” he said.

What started out as a seven-day-a-week assignment was eventually whittled down to five so Luce could attend to matters relating to the school system.

Furthermore, he was in phone contact with his staff, and they would make occasional trips to Houma or Thibodaux to meet with the superintendent.

“I was able to balance the two,” he said.

And as the school year edged closer, the National Guard allowed Luce to return to regular responsibilities.

“They graciously let me off orders at that point,” he said.

“I appreciated the way the two public agencies allowed me to do what I needed to do,” he added.

But now that Luce is back in Lutcher full time, he may sometimes find himself longing for the relative ease of life in Houma.

“The demands of the school system are more stressful than the demands of the oil spill,” he confessed.

He attributed that fact to the singular determination and relatively limitless resources of those fighting the spill. According to Luce, he was afforded whatever personnel or equipment he needed to get the job done in Houma.

“Sometimes the sense of urgency is not as great … in tackling K-12 education,” he said. “If we were to give it the same priority, it would be an easier job to tackle.”

His experiences both behind the battle lines, however, inform his experiences behind the desk.

“There are a lot of similarities to being a battalion commander and superintendent,” he said. “I think the two work well together.”