"We'll Deal with the Consequences Later": The Cajun Navy and the Vigilante Future of Disaster Relief
BY MIRIAM MARKOWITZ
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, an ad hoc group of Louisianans calling themselves the Cajun Navy took their boats to Texas and started ferrying people to safety. As superstorms rock our coastlines with increasing frequency and underfunded government-relief agencies keep falling short, private citizens are stepping in to save those left behind.
In August, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall, dropping 50 inches of rain and flooding 28,000 square miles around Houston in three days, the people of Louisiana raised a vigilante armada, the Cajun Navy, to come to the aid of their neighbors in Texas. Volunteer rescuers arrived soon after the storm hit, with flat-bottomed boats normally used for navigating the bayous now repurposed to maneuver around the submerged streets, bringing desperately needed supplies and, in the absence of first responders, ferrying stranded people to safety.
Ben Husser is one of those Cajuns: a native of Hammond Louisiana, who has served in the Air National Guard for almost three decades. He’d never worked a storm until Hurricane Katrina, when his unit was deployed as security for a company that removed bodies from houses. And then last year, his father’s church in Robert, Louisiana, was flooded—news he personally delivered to his father after discovering the damage. This year he and his father were spared by Harvey, so Ben did what he always does when a storm comes: loaded up his boat and went to see where he could be of service. On the Tuesday after Harvey hit Texas, he showed up at the Costco in Baton Rouge, where the Cajun Navy had organized their base of operations on a picnic bench in front of the store.
Ben and his father spent their first day driving supplies like water and diapers to Houston. The next day, his wife, a nurse who had joined him on missions before, told him it looked like there was trouble in Port Arthur, Texas, three hours west of Baton Rouge. Ben connected with a local judge who was helping organize the rescue and recovery efforts and told him he had 15 boats under his command and was ready to help.
Ben told me the story of a nursing home in Port Arthur he and the Cajun Navy helped evacuate. When a staff member let them in to the facility, they found an older woman sitting in a wheelchair, her legs covered by a foot and a half of fetid water. “Why is she shaking?” Ben asked. “How long has she been here?” The staffer didn’t know.
Throughout the building, residents were left in different states of undress, many lying in beds that hovered just above flood waters contaminated with feces and urine. The flooding had begun in the toilets, and now 65 residents were being kept there in a lake of sewage. They hadn’t eaten since the night before, and many were dehydrated. Ben demanded to speak to the director of the nursing home. Citing corporate policy, the director explained that he had decided against evacuating the residents. And he certainly wouldn’t let the Cajun Navy take them—only the National Guard was authorized to do so. Ben found himself at an impasse with the director that words would not resolve. “I had to beat the hell out of the nursing-home director,” Ben told me. At one point during the altercation, Ben drew a gun.
“Do what you have to do to get these people out. We’ll deal with the consequences later.”
Ben got on the phone with a Louisiana congressman sympathetic to the Cajun Navy’s efforts. He sent a video of the situation inside the home. The horrified congressman said, “Do what you have to do to get these people out. We’ll deal with the consequences later.” Soon Port Arthur police showed up and detained the director while Ben and his team started removing the grateful residents. Nurses made sure that nobody left without their medication and medical records. They loaded the residents into boats and brought them to temporary shelter in a bowling alley and a small theater until a military rescue could relocate them to the appropriate facilities.
When I sat down with Ben on Saturday, September 2, at a Walk-On’s restaurant in Lake Charles, Louisiana, he still had a black eye from his showdown with the director. He told me he’s rescued people in more than dozen storms, either in his official capacity with the Air National Guard or as a concerned civilian carrying out his own version of vigilante humanitarian aid. He said his tactical vest usually gets him where he needs to be even if he’s acting independently, which he prefers. “In the military, I’m bound by a set of rules. Here I get a lot more accomplished.” He offered me some of his buffalo wings after he saw me eyeing them with envy. “This is what we do in Louisiana. People say, 'Why do you live down here?’ Well, shit, you got to live somewhere. This is just part of life.”
We feel so powerless; so at the mercy of the whims of nature and of ill-intentioned others, the foul play and worse weather that are sure to come our way tomorrow if not today. In an age when the governmental bodies charged with our safekeeping are failing during times of both crisis and calm, stretched ever more thinly between natural disasters of increasing magnitude and frequency, amateur outfits like the Cajun Navy seem not just useful but like a patriotic solution to our society’s crumbling infrastructure. The idea of strong-willed, brave citizens working collectively to help each other during an emergency is an appealing one—but it is also a scenario whose utility has its limits, as well as its dangers.
Not long after the storm hit, I arrived at the Cajun Navy headquarters at the Costco in Baton Rouge from which Ben Husser had been dispatched to the nursing home. I found a bare-bones ops center staffed by about six people on two picnic benches surrounded by donations: food, water, diapers for children and adults, snacks—whatever was dropped off by Costco customers who checked a whiteboard with a list of what was needed most. A few women sat at the picnic benches, taking calls from Texas and elsewhere, dispatching boats and materials with swift efficiency. They seemed like old friends, but as one of them, Hannah Rothermel, told me, they had only met a few days earlier, when they first set up shop outside the store.
I took a seat and observed as they fielded calls and requests, asking each other occasionally for guidance, and, when they couldn’t decide among themselves, calling out for Todd Terrell, the de facto leader of the Cajun Navy. (It was Todd who had placed Ben in command of the small armada in Port Arthur.) He was hard to catch. Nicknamed “The Squirrel,” Todd could barely stand still long enough to answer a question before he took another call on his cell phone or stopped to pose for a picture with someone who wanted a selfie with “Mr. Cajun Navy.” He’s a rugged, handsome man of 50, with clear blue eyes. His company, Louisiana Swamp Products, recovers cypress logs. He's been helping storm victims rehabilitate their homes since 2016, when he went on rescue in Baton Rouge. Always nearby but less visible was Jon Bridgers, the founder of Cajun Navy 2016, who owns a construction company and led efforts to rescue people in the flood in Baton Rouge last year.
The people of Louisiana first began to call themselves the Cajun Navy during Katrina, when people like Todd Terrell went to rescue their neighbors in New Orleans. They revived the name last year when Baton Rouge experienced what residents now call the Great Flood. In swampy Louisiana, the old joke says, at any one time half the state is under water and the other half is under indictment. There are the big storms that capture the attention of the public, like Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and Katrina, 40 years later—but every year that Louisiana doesn’t get a named storm, it floods just the same. Today there are at least three separate outfits who go by the Cajun Navy moniker, and dozens more who’ve been inspired by it, including but not limited to the Cajun Army (for people without boats), the Cajun Special Forces, the Cajun Airlift, and the Cajun Green Cross, as well as the Texas Navy and the Cracker Navy in Florida, which was formed during Hurricane Irma. In Texas, during the week that Harvey hit, pretty much every Louisiana man with a boat identified himself as Cajun Navy, as did many more who weren’t from Louisiana but were among the thousands who converged in Texas from across the country. These volunteers found each other on Facebook, in parking lots, and on Zello, a walkie-talkie app that allowed dispatchers, many of them complete newbies, to match people in need with willing and able rescuers. The app was the key to the Cajun Navy’s efficacy. It was reportedly downloaded by 6 million people in the week after Harvey hit and now has about 100 million registered users.
By the time I arrived, the Cajun Navy had launched hundreds of boats. Todd called a Louisiana politician who had been helping facilitate Cajun Navy operations in Texas. He was sympathetic to Todd’s gripes about slow, ineffective, and possibly jealous local law enforcement—people who likely resented the sudden intrusion and soaring popularity of the Cajun Navy. “The state police can’t stop you from driving to Texas,” the politician said. “In a time of disaster, you can break the rules and still do the right thing.” Todd added that if he were ever in danger, he hoped the person to rescue him would be a fireman. “They act first and deal with issues after.”
While Todd made arrangements to take his boats to Texas, the women sat at the picnic bench and continued to field calls. One of them, Em Saunier, was a real estate agent with bright blonde hair and a sharp tongue. She had stopped by right after the storm to drop off some goody bags filled with treats for the rescuers, and Todd later asked her to stick around and help. She wore a headset like an air-traffic controller’s and spoke with cool deliberation into the mic, even when people on the other end were panicking. A question came in through the Facebook channel, a woman asking how could she become a part of the Cajun Navy. Em answered, “Show up.”
The next day, Todd appeared to be on edge. He seemed to have slept little and was running on not much more than a fidget spinner and Mountain Dew. A convoy of Red Cross vehicles from all over was assembling in the Costco parking lot, “like a collection of state quarters.” Todd brought me over to say hi and take pictures with the volunteers, most of whom seemed to be retired folks with a do-gooder sensibility and a lot of time on their hands. Todd asked them about where they came from and why, where they were headed (Texas) with what (water bottles), and whether or not their meals were subsidized by the Red Cross (they were).
After the Red Cross vehicles made their exit, Todd hopped on the phone with the Louisiana politician.
“We’ve got to have a talk with the Red Cross. I’m disgusted with them. I tried to give them food and water. They won’t take anything but cash dollars. Every one of those vehicles left with two or three cases of water in them and nothing else.”
The politician could barely get a word in, but I heard him mutter “idiotic.”
“That’s right,” Todd continued. “Idiotic. They just don’t know how to handle things. I’m appalled that we know and they don’t. The big need right now is baby supplies, diapers and stuff. They’re even running out of water. The Red Cross just took over the Lake Charles Civic Center. There’s nothing getting in there now. You can kiss it goodbye. These guys don’t go through water over three inches deep. We’re rolling past them.”
Todd moved away so I wouldn’t hear the next part of his conversation. At that moment, a passel of incontinence diapers arrived. One of the dispatchers was thrilled: “It’s amazing how good God’s timing is!” Todd got off the phone. “He says we’re actually saving lives.” The crew was psyched to hear they had the government’s blessing, at least off the record. They were bubbling with excitement over each new development. “We’re supplying the National Guard with pallets now,” Todd said. Someone wanted to donate 2,000 pounds of frozen chicken, and the women were trying to figure out how to ship it. A group calling themselves Cajun Gravy wanted to offer catering services. The crew of NCIS: New Orleans was coming with a truck full of supplies. Someone spotted a photo of a Black Hawk helicopter carrying water they had supplied to the Port Arthur Memorial Stadium.
Jon Bridgers came back to the table while everyone was crowing. They told him about the water.
“Our water?” Jon asked.
“Baton Rouge water, yeah.”
Jon smiled with satisfaction. “Cajun Navy water.”
Todd had told me that he would have preferred to be out on rescue duty, but he was needed in ops, and he had guys out there better than he. It wasn’t about ego. Others had followed his lead. Scott Schmidt and Scott Holst of Wisconsin had driven down with Holst’s boat, but by the time they arrived in Baton Rouge, they weren’t needed for rescues. Instead they loaded up their truck and delivered supplies to Texas, then drove back and loaded it up again. Everyone wants to be a hero, but sometimes the real need is more mundane. The Scotts were happy to fill that role and returned home with their boat having never touched the water.
The next morning around eight, we congregated once again at Costco. A week had passed since the storm. Supplies operations had moved over to the Bridgers’s family church, where Jon’s wife, Laurie, had resumed the unglamorous task of receiving and deploying inventory. (During the 2016 flood, she had run much of ops and supplies by herself, also at the church, while the men were out on rescues.) Todd started off with a pep talk. Now was the time to come together and stay together. Soon there would be people coming their way, flashing big money and big smiles, but the team assembled here was the core team. The team needed to stick together and not be fooled by the inevitable vultures.
It was going to be a big day. Todd and Jon had selected 30 team members to meet the president in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he was stopping off after spending a few hours in Texas. Everyone looked like they had been sent by a different casting agency from around the country. There were the Scotts in T-shirts, army-green pants, and sunglasses; the ’Bama Boys, Kyle Smith and Joey Mason, in matching checked button-downs; the Rednecks with Paychecks, Michael William and Derrick Morse, from Texas, wearing cowboy boots and hats; the women of the Cajun Navy, attired in smart pants and blouses; Todd, in a simple blue polo and jeans, and Jon, decked out in full Louisiana State University football regalia (the team was playing a game later that evening); plus the Odd Couple, Shon Smith, a 40-something Gulf War veteran with a long yellow beard and a U.S. Army cap, and a new friend he had met in a Walmart parking lot, Jared Bourgeois, a 23-year-old from Lafitte, Louisiana, awkward but endearing in his simple ensemble of a T-shirt and shorts, with his curly brown hair tucked into a headband and his feet clad in the white shrimpin’ boots he had been wearing on rescues throughout the week, including the night before. Finally there was Ben Husser, his black eye now a thin purple, who, like most of the others, had only met Todd and Jon a few days before.
The politics of rescue and recovery seem as though they should be simple—come to the aid of people in need, regardless of race or creed. But in reality, they are often tribal.
On our way to Lake Charles, we found a camo-painted 6x6 military truck stopped by the side of the road. The truck had a bad fuel pump. Todd was in full Good Samaritan mode and delayed our journey while we got the driver sorted for help, then posed for pictures.
When we arrived in Lake Charles, we were instructed to disperse for an hour or so while the Secret Service cleared the area. Protesters were accumulating outside the armory where we were to meet the president. People were upset. Why would anyone protest such a wonderful occasion?
Then we were given the all clear. By the time we reached the armory, the protesters had been dispersed and a crowd of Trump supporters had coalesced in their wake. Once we were inside, we were lectured about protocol and then asked, again, to wait. The guy in charge had the various groups rehearse their photo ops with the president. Members of the National Guard quickly assembled into a neat line of square-jawed men and women, perfectly posed in readiness for their commander in chief. Our group was less tidy. We were told to squeeze in close and not to attempt to touch or take selfies with the president. Em shouted to the man giving orders, “Can we give him a hug?” We laughed. “We’re Cajun,” she said. “We can’t be corralled. And we’re kind of slow.”
Todd was still angry about the protesters. A few people had tried to cover up the word #IMPEACH painted on a fence just across the street, but the property owner refused to let them. I reminded Todd that the protesters, now gone, had come for Trump, not the Cajun Navy.
We waited in the heat. Finally we got word that the Trumps were arriving, and we stood up and gathered neatly—neatly for Cajuns, at least—and waited for Donald and Melania to make their way to us. Todd and Jon beamed at the president and first lady. They shook hands, and then shook hands some more. Todd told him, “We couldn’t have done it without you.” The president said something about trying to provide the Cajun Navy with boats; I couldn’t catch the details. A gaggle of Louisiana politicians followed the first couple’s trail, along with Betsy DeVos, included for reasons unknown.
That was it. We went home high on accolades and the sweet sense of proximity to power. Later we gathered at the Renaissance hotel in Baton Rouge. Scott Freshwater, a volunteer who couldn’t make it out, called in to pick up the tab for the crew of the Cajun Navy. We got very drunk.
The politics of rescue and recovery seem as though they should be simple—come to the aid of people in need, regardless of race or creed. But in reality, they are often tribal. The most egregious example of this was New Orleans during Katrina, when the federal response was late and wholly insufficient, and led to hundreds of deaths in a city that is predominantly black. This year, after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Trump reprised George W. Bush’s failure, and for the same reason: New Orleans and Puerto Rico are full of people who aren’t white and thus not a national priority. (Twelve years later, there are tens of thousands of black people missing from New Orleans who left after the storm and never returned.)
Todd was particularly sensitive to questions of race—the Cajun Navy was almost completely white. On Thursday he had canceled an interview with CNN because they wanted, he said, to “make it about race.” Also, he claimed, they had once asked him to stage a rescue for live television. He explained while we waited for Trump, “In New Orleans, we were rescuing hundreds of black people from places most would never go. This isn’t about race. This is about coming together.” Todd appeared to be correct: In contrast to the lopsidedness of federal relief, I encountered no evidence that any victims were denied help from the Cajun Navy because they were black and saw many pictures documenting the opposite.
A certain kind of volunteer vigilantism, in the forms of both search and rescue and guard and protect, is having a moment.
But tribal undercurrents did run through the rescue efforts. Fans of the Cajun Navy were quick to point out that many of its members did belong to a certain group, one that has long been ridiculed in the media and which has come to represent to many, since the 2016 election, what’s wrong with America. As one supporter wrote, with some hyperbole, on Facebook, “Every member of the Cajun Navy would be deemed ‘deplorable’ by that certain individual who will never, ever be President of the United States.”
This wasn’t strictly true. For instance, Shon Smith, an ardent Trump supporter, had also voted for Obama twice. But then Smith wasn’t a Cajun, and most of the Cajuns were cagey about their politics. Certainly they suspected mine diverged from theirs, but they never made a point of saying so, and nor did I make a point of telling them. For the people of the Gulf Coast, this was a moment of transcendence, not a time to get mired in the weeds. It was a stark contrast to the callousness I had seen on Twitter: Angry liberals suggesting that Texas, after voting against funding for Hurricane Sandy relief, should be left to fend for itself after Harvey—climate deniers and Trump voters should not, in their opinion, expect relief from outside sources when they failed New York and New Jersey.
If nothing else, the Cajun Navy has proved that in some situations, organized citizens can act more effectively than the professionals who are paid by our tax dollars. There’s something to be said for the empowerment of the individual when the government fails. But this empowerment is a mixed blessing. For every person rescued by a volunteer, there may be another who drowns because an untrained dispatcher can’t tell the difference between a real call and a prank. The more visible the Cajun Navy became, the more people called in emergencies, sometimes with misleading information or simple noise. It became a liability for the organization. There had also been some backlash against the Cajun Navy from law enforcement. Todd said, “Rogues and yahoos with pistols are giving us a bad reputation. We need a sticker or something.”
Volunteer rescue speaks to the fantasies of an American public that prizes, above all else, the right to bear arms—not just to defend themselves and their families, but to organize into militias when necessary. This is a fantasy shared by white people, rich and poor, across America, including our president, who sent a clear message in choosing to honor the Cajun Navy alongside the National Guard. A certain kind of volunteer vigilantism, in the forms of both search and rescue and guard and protect, is having a moment. Consider the increased visibility of the Oath Keepers militia on the right and Antifa on the militant left. And if current anti-government sentiment and collective action continue along the trajectory preferred by the party now in control of the government, that moment could last a long time.
In Judaism there is a saying about tikkun olam, repairing the world: Save one life, and you save the world entire. There is an essential truth here: Every man and woman who contributed to the monumental citizen efforts during and after Harvey is a hero. We owe them gratitude and recognition. They should be proud to have remade the world into a slightly better place. But if every man or woman has to decide for him or herself whether or not to act because there is no other recourse, because the institutions we erected for this purpose have failed, then we will be living in a world where saving one life won’t mean shit. For our efforts to be effective, they need to be large-scale and systemic. Heroism can’t be the exception in a civilized society, and it shouldn’t be financed by micro-donations through GoFundMe campaigns. We pay taxes for firefighters and police because we can't bank on the whims of our neighbors to save us. If America ever was great, it was because we could rely on institutions that we took pride in to function in peacetime and in emergencies. Today, when infrastructure is crumbling even faster than faith in governance, we instead laud the individuals and groups who rescue us from incompetence, defunding, and deliberate neglect. They deserve the applause, but not the onus of rescue. Because sometimes the homes of our friends and neighbors will also be flooded or engulfed in flames. And then we will have to depend upon people distant or unknown, and in those times, more likely than not, we’ll be dead.
I arrived in Vidor, Texas, on Monday, September 4. It had been ten days since Harvey made landfall, but the town was still in emergency mode. The National Guard had set up a bare-bones medical center in a strip-mall parking lot; volunteers were cooking and collecting food and water rations for the hungry, of which there were many. Much of the surrounding area was still underwater, but most of the people who could be rescued had been. Some had elected to stay in the houses as the waters rose, as some always do. The only humans left to be recovered were likely corpses.
Boats were still out, though, despite rumors of E. coli and MRSA infecting the sewage- and gasoline-saturated water, ferrying people to check on their flooded houses and rescuing pets. I met a father and son who had come from Missouri and Texas, respectively, with a boat to help with the animal rescues. On the outskirts of town, people were undertaking the recovery of some 20 dogs from the house of a hoarder. When I showed up at the address, there were six or seven people involved in various aspects of the operation; only one woman, the person who made the call on behalf of the hoarder’s nephew, was local. Several of them identified themselves as Cajun Navy, or Navy-adjacent, having worked with them via the Zello app. All were proud to be associated with the heroes of Harvey, and some had been inspired to come to Texas by reports of the Cajun Navy’s wild and unlikely success.
Texas and Louisiana have a special relationship. After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Houston took in some 250,000 refugees from New Orleans. At least 25,000 of them never returned to Louisiana, either because they couldn’t afford to or because they hoped for better, more stable lives in the Lone Star State. When Harvey hit Texas, the Cajuns remembered not just Katrina but the countless other times Texas and Louisiana were caught in the same storm. Culturally, Gulf Coast communities have much in common and, after Florida, Texas and Louisiana are the two most hurricane-prone states in the union. Opinions about climate change—whether it is happening, whether it is mostly man-made, if it is or will harm us now or in future generations—deviate from the national average, but not by much. Most Americans believe climate change is real; fewer believe it is driven by human activities or that it is already having deleterious effects on their lives.
People in Texas or Louisiana might be less inclined to worry about climate change because, for them, the weather has always been extreme. They are environmentally vulnerable in a way that most states are not. With that vulnerability come hazards that will grow more dangerous to the health of their populations as climate change worsens, poverty levels rise, and mosquito-borne and other tropical diseases become endemic to areas with lousy infrastructure and poor public-health facilities. But none of this is news to people on the Gulf Coast; it’s the way they’ve been living for a long time, in a region left behind by the prosperity and innovation to the north since the days of the Reconstruction.
Recovery will not come quickly to Vidor or Port Arthur. But all the hands that came to help, even those belonging to volunteers more willing than able, heartened the residents and girded them for the monumental efforts of rebuilding their lives. They were not, for once, forgotten.
I suspect this is just the beginning of the story of the Cajun Navy and the citizens’ groups it has inspired across America. After the Trump visit, Jon incorporated Cajun Navy 2016 into a nonprofit focusing on aid through church groups, and he and Todd parted ways for reasons the Bridgers refused to disclose. According to Todd, though, the Cajun Navy 2016 has become “all about the money.” “Has this changed Jon?” he said to me. “Hell, yeah, it’s changed him. He’s all about money and power now.” (Jon denies this characterization, and maintains that Cajun Navy 2016 is working with state and local officials to prepare for the next disaster, whenever it may come.)
Recently, Todd started his own outfit, which he is calling United Cajun Navy—his goal, he says, is just that: to unite everyone under one banner and coordinate from the big picture down to the gritty details. He tells me he wants to get back, in the end, to where he started—with rescues: “You gotta save the people first.“
Miriam Markowitz, formerly an editor of Harper's Magazine and The Nation, is a writer based in Lisbon.
Louisiana Cajun Navy
Rescue. Relieve. Rebuild.
We don't wait for the help, We are the help! We the people of Louisiana refuse to stand by and wait for help in the wake of disasters in our state and the country. We rise up to unite and help rescue our neighbors! Our mission is to help the people who can't get help, not only in the wake of disaster, but in everyday life.
United Cajun Navy
Our mission is to assist Louisiana and Texas rebuild and recover from the recent flood of 2016 and Hurricane Harvey.
Call (225) 806-0746
Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)
Cajun Navy descends on Carolinas to rescue you (and your pets)
BY VIRGINIA BRIDGES
GASTON, SOUTH CAROLINA --
Michale “Gramma M” Williams’ phone buzzed as she headed up one of the Louisiana Cajun Navy’s latest hurricane-rescue efforts: Operation Shelter the Animals First.
“At present I have nine horses, I have two emus, one goat, nine swans, dozens of geese, dozens of chickens, dozens of ducks, dozens of guineas, and two dozen shore birds,” and a 200 pound pig, Williams said as she fielded calls for help moving animals out of Castle Hayne in New Hanover County, Pollocksville in Jones County and other areas.
Williams is a recent North Carolina recruit to the Cajun Navy, a loose collection of volunteer groups that continue to hone their homegrown search-and-rescue efforts, natural disaster after natural disaster.
It began when boaters descended on south Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They responded to the 1,000-year flood in Baton Rouge in 2016 and then Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year.
“They learned such hard lessons during Harvey,” Williams said of Peachland in Anson County, east of Charlotte. “If they had been able to get some of those animals out prior to the storm coming, it wouldn’t have been such a catastrophic difficulty trying to rescue humans and animals after the storm.”
Some Cajun Navy groups are setting up across the Carolinas, preparing to deploying their signature Louisiana fishing boats and airboats, great for shallow-water rescues.
Courtesy of the United Cajun Navy
“Right now we have about 35 or 40 boats,” said Todd Terrell, founder of the Baton Rouge-based United Cajun Navy. “By about 5 o’clock we are going to have a couple hundred.”
The volunteers are expanding their relief efforts on land, too.
For the past week, the Louisiana Cajun Navy, based in Hammond, Louisiana, has been working ahead of the storm, helping nail windows shut and find shelter for people and their pets. They communicate via the walkie-talkie like app Zello, using handles name like Gramma M.
The groups also plan to feed first responders and help meet fill gaps in the masses of needs that will likely follow the storm.
“We have another call for supplies [expected] to come from Baton Rouge, Destin, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi,” Terrell said.
About the Cajun Navy
The Cajun Navy started unofficially after Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast in August 2005, said Clyde Cain, founder of the Louisiana Cajun Navy based in Hammond, east of Baton Rouge.
“A call was made, and boaters came from everywhere,” Cain said. “They descended on New Orleans and other places.”
Authorities told them they couldn’t, but “they went in and did it,” he said.
The Cajun Navy reemerged in August 2016 during the catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge when it rained for three days.
“Ten million Olympic size swimming pools worth of water that had been emptied on us, and everything flooded,” Cain said.
Men and women used boats, flat-bottomed pirogues and air mattresses to get people to safety.
Cain rescued his daughter.
“You don’t rescue one person,” he said. “You go back and forth until everyone is picked up.”
And then Harvey hit Texas in August 2017, dropping an unprecedented amount of rain as it stalled out on the Texas coast.
“I had never spent five days rescuing people,” Cain said. “That was hairy.”
The United Cajun Navy, one of about a half dozen sects, oversaw 763 boats and 1,200 volunteers who rescued more than 10,000 people, Terrell said
President Trump mentioned the Cajun Navy in his 2018 State of the Union address, saying the U.S. had seen a year of fires, floods and storms.
“But through it all we have seen the beauty of America’s soul and the steel in America’s spine. Each test has forged new American heroes to remind us who we are and show us what we can be,” Trump said. “We saw the volunteers of the Cajun Navy racing to the rescue with their fishing boats to save people in the aftermath of a totally devastating hurricane.”
Sometimes, people who are confused by the different factions, ask Cain if he runs the entire Cajun Navy.
“You couldn’t pay me $30 million to run all these guys, because they don’t all listen,” he said. “They all have their own ideas.”
But when it’s time to get along and come together, Cain said, they “get it done.”
The Hurricane Florence operation started about a week ago.
Cain came to town with five core guys and started working with other rescue groups on pet and large-animal needs. That included Cain driving 19 dogs from the South Carolina coast to Columbia.
One of those dogs, an American pit bull mix, didn’t make it to the second leg of the trip down to Florida after Cain fell in love with her.
He named her Bonnie Bella, and she is now the Louisiana Cajun Rescue’s mascot.
Currently, the Louisiana and United Cajun navys have set up at a more than 100-acre compound in Gaston, South Carolina.
A couple hundred horses, along with dogs, cats and rabbits have been brought there, a temporary stop on their way to safe ground.
Around noon Thursday, they had about 75 volunteers, with 300 were expected by the end of the day, Terrell said.
On Thursday Terrell and Cain stopped at the South Carolina Fire Academy in Columbia to meet local emergency responders and tell them about the Cajun Navy resources.
“We have boats, trailers, fuel, catering, manpower,” he said. “As a volunteer network we have resources that the government doesn’t have.”
And they can help without any red tape, Cain said.
On Friday, once they know where the needs are, they will fan out, Terrell said, while the catering crew will be firing up hot meals for the Cajun Navy and local emergency officials.
“That is what the Cajun Navy is,” he said. “It is a people-helping-people movement.”
“I always tell people that I think a disaster is God’s way of bringing the country back together and bringing people back together. … People just pick up their bootstraps and help their neighbors."
WAFB (Baton Rouge, La.)
Fundraiser honoring Sadie Thibodeaux, benefit United Cajun Navy
The United Cajun Navy hopes the funds could help purchase a mobile command unit.
By Carmen Farrish
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - The sudden death of Sadie Joe Thibodeaux last month left her family and friends reeling.
Thibodeaux went for a sailboat ride on August 5 in Lake Pontchartrain, then decided to take a swim. Because their boat was not anchored, they lost sight of the boat. Thibodeaux's friend was found alive nearly 13 hours after crews found their unmanned sailboat.
“Every time I look at a sunset, I think of Sadie. Every time I see a rainbow, I think of Sadie. She’s making it happen up there,” says friend Kehl Waltman.
“She was bubbly all the time and so happy. She made you want to be happy,” says friend and owner of The Vineyard, Natasha Bucari.
One of Thibodeaux’s friends asked the United Cajun Navy for help with the search. Two days after she went missing, volunteers discovered Thibodeaux’s body and she was returned home.
Since Thibodeaux was a fan of the non-profit, her friends decided to raise money to help them continue their efforts.
“Sadie has a big heart. Sadie has love. Sadie just gives and gives and to see a group of people that actually did the sme thing that she would want, it was beautiful. She loved it,” says Waltman.
“She loved helping people,” Bucari recalls. “I think that’s pretty awesome.”
For years now, the United Cajun Navy has had a dream to buy an old ambulance and convert it into a mobile command unit. This fundraiser helps make it happen.
Family and friends of Thibodeaux held a benefit Sunday at The Vineyard on Coursey Boulevard. Artwork and gift baskets were sold in a silent auction, along with raffle tickets. All proceeds will go towards purchasing that vehicle.
“Basically, when we go into an area and we deal with a disaster, we come with a table and a notebook,” says Todd Terrell, founder of the United Cajun Navy. “So, this mobile command unit will make us more mobile and it’ll also give us more credibility.
Friends say Sadie always spoke of making an impact on the community, even in her absence, it is possible.
“Knowing that she loved them so much, this is what she would want,” Waltman says. “She’s doing so much through all of us. We didn’t even know we were capable of doing things like this. She definitely made this happen. It’s not me, it’s definitely her.”
Possibly the highlight of this fundraiser, the ambulance will bear Sadie’s name, helping her legacy live on.
“The family became part of us. We saw there was a need for unity. Everybody needs to try to work together,” Terrell says.
“If anyone deserves to live forever and be put into something that could help more people, even in death, it would be Sadie,” Waltman says.
The United Cajun Navy is looking for donations and volunteers as they prepare to help the East Coast as Hurricane Florence heads in that direction.
So far, Terrell says, over 15,000 volunteers from all over the country are scheduled to leave next week.