Fresh water. Tarps. A simple loaf of bread.
These were just a few of the many requests Cajun Navy Ground Forces founder Rob Gaudet fulfilled on Thursday night for citizens in need, four days after Hurricane Ida touched down near Port Fourchon, Louisiana.
The Cajun Navy Ground Forces are currently stationed in Houma, Louisiana, in a parking lot next to a flooded Petco and a Walmart Supercenter with no roof. They’ve been taking in and distributing supplies to passersby in large volumes and coordinating other relief efforts as well.
“It’s like a warzone down here,” Gaudet told MeatEater. “I’d say 75 to 80% of the homes have significant damage.”
Gaudet’s group is just one of several volunteer rescue organizations that use variations on the name “Cajun Navy.” With local and state emergency response services stretched to their limits, these responders are a reliable source of relief. Many members are waterfowlers and anglers with personal boats who volunteer their time, energy, and watercraft for search-and-rescue efforts in the wake of hurricanes and other natural disasters.
A reporter coined the phrase “Cajun Navy” when Hurricane Katrina’s wrath leveled coastal Louisiana in 2005, killing 1,800 people. Armies of Louisiana sportswomen and men took to the flooded streets in flat-bottom duck boats to rescue people trapped on their roofs and in their attics.
These efforts have since spread well beyond the Sportsman’s Paradise. The groups made a mass voyage to Houston during Hurricane Harvey. If you think “Cajun Navy, Iowa Division” sounds like an oxymoron, you clearly haven’t seen the lines of boat trailers hauling ass southbound on I-35 from Des Moines to New Orleans. Some of these groups even have branches in the Northeast, making the Cajun Navy more of a nationwide grassroots movement than a single entity. They bring new meaning to the phrase “all hands on deck”—and every hand will count in the wake of Thursday’s disaster.
Hurricane Ida is tied for the fifth-strongest storm to ever hit the mainland United States. The 150-mph winds were stronger than Hurricane Katrina’s, which landed in virtually the exact same place, 16 years ago to the day. Ida caused more than a million power outages across the greater New Orleans area, two deaths in Louisiana and 50 in the Northeast, building collapses, and dangerous floods. FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell called it “one of the most catastrophic hurricanes to ever make landfall.”
Gaudet painted a similar scene while talking to MeatEater.
“There's no running water. The water system is completely messed up, it's not potable,” he said. “When it's not raining, it's 90-plus degrees, closer to 100, and it's going to be that way for three weeks. And you have elderly people, young people, children, living in their cars. Some of them are living in damaged homes. There’s no air conditioning because there's no electricity. It’s not like you can just take a generator to your destroyed home. So where do you go? The churches can't help you; the churches’ roofs are blown off.”
Image via Cajun Navy 2016 Facebook page.
Gaudet, a tech entrepreneur and software developer, stays out of the boats, instead choosing to help his fellow Louisianians by designing and operating databases that help connect boaters with the closest need for rescue. The idea for such a system came along in 2016 in the wake of severe flooding when people were turning to Facebook to ask for help from their rooftops and attics.
“I said, let's catalog all these requests, get them into a database online where I can have remote people look at them, mark where they are on a map, and then we can find the nearest rescuer because he has GPS on his phone,” Gaudet said. “We can say ‘Hey, John, you're the closest guy to this address. Here's where you're going to go, here's the situation: You’ve got an elderly woman and her daughter and a baby. And they're chest-deep in water. Please go rescue them.”
Ben Husser is the vice president of another organization, Cajun Navy 2016. They formed after what Husser called “the Great Floods of 2016,” and have since grown into a force of almost 2,000 people.
“We are swiftwater-rescue trained. We're doing all the same training that fire departments and nationally recognized task forces get. So, we're starting to turn the corner of actually being professional. We're no longer just guys in duck boats going out and helping,” Husser told MeatEater. “But we still have those volunteers too, don't get me wrong. A lot of our volunteers are duck hunters in Louisiana.”
Image via Cajun Navy 2016 Facebook page.
The flat-bottom jonboats that waterfowlers use to access swamps and marshes are perfect for navigating shallow, debris-filled, flooded streets and neighborhoods too. While vessels with deeper keels and standard prop outboards may get stuck, rigs with specialized swamp motors, jet drives, or airboat fans are ideal.
“We use what's called a mud motor. It's a surface-drive motor, basically a lawnmower engine,” Husser said. “They’re air-cooled, unlike an outboard motor that needs water to keep it cool.”
Husser says that the motivation for sportswomen and to volunteer for the Cajun Navy is simple: He chalks it up to a pervasive attitude of “neighbor helping neighbor.”
“It's what's engrained in us in South Louisiana,” he said. “People down here take life as, ‘If I'm hurting, you're hurting.’ And if my neighbor needs something and I own it, he can come borrow it. I've got friends who say, ‘Hey, go stay at our camp this weekend.’ And they'll come borrow my tractor because they need to bushhog their food plots. We share resources. That's kind of the Cajun way of life.”
Image via Jordy Bloodsworth
Jordy Bloodsworth was just 13 years old when Katrina took his family’s home and possessions. Now 29, Bloodsworth is in his fifth year with the Louisiana Cajun Navy, another loosely affiliated group. He serves as the fleet captain and is second in command. In normal times he’s a fishing and hunting guide.
“It's really the hunters and fishermen. We take our own property and resources and try to help rescue people when it's necessary,” Bloodsworth told MeatEater.
Between the 8 feet of floodwater, the overwhelming number of missing roofs, and the Jefferson Parish transmission tower floating down the Mississippi River, Bloodsworth has seen his fair share of destruction and doom these last few days. And while he and the rest of the Cajun Navy will continue working tirelessly, he’s quick to acknowledge how badly they need help.
“We're running very low on volunteers right now, especially for the amount of donations we've gotten,” Bloodsworth said. “It's taken a toll on us fast. I've been reaching out to every possible organization, group, church, friends, sports teams, anybody that can send me some hands to help out. We need experienced boaters, whether that's with an airboat or some type of hunting boat and air-cooled engine. Just experienced people that are willing to lend a hand.”
But even with the extreme need for manpower and the bleakness of the next few months, the morale among the Cajun Navy stays high. And according to Bloodsworth, they’re holding fast—come hell or higher water: “As long as there’s a job for us to do or somebody to help, we'll be here.”
If you would like to donate or learn more about how you can help the Cajun Navy with relief efforts for those affected by Hurricane Ida, please follow these links: Louisiana Cajun Navy -More information here -Donate here Cajun Navy 2016 (Officially Pinnacle SAR) -More information here -Donate here Cajun Navy Ground Forces -More information here -Donate here
Feature image via Cajun Navy 2016