While Hurricane Michael was still swirling in the Gulf, hours yet from devastating the Florida panhandle, the Cajun Navy was already waiting for it. They had boats, trucks, chainsaws and other rescue gear with them, and were helping people evacuate as the storm unexpectedly and swiftly morphed into a monster.
The Cajun Navy is a grassroots response to professional rescue organizations like the National Guard and FEMA. They help fill in the gaps, especially when the professionals are overwhelmed by calls from people in need.
The Cajun Navy first set sail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans 13 years ago. Nearly 400 volunteers drove their boats through the flooded city, rescuing over 10,000 people from rooftops and buildings.
Since then, the Navy has reappeared during other natural disasters in the Southeast, mostly when federal response has fallen short. Over the past few years, they’ve added many more members and have become a more organized group. They’ve responded to hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Florence and now Michael. And they are out right there, as of press time, paddling through an unrecognizable landscape, sifting through debris, saving lives one by one.
People in distress can request help through the Cajun Navy’s Facebook page and through sites like CrowdSource Rescue, which was created in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The Navy also leverages the power of social media to crowdsource help when they need it: A senior citizens’ home needed a backup generator installed, and within 3 hours, this post asking for help had more than 200 shares and a dozen comments. According to the Sarasota Herald, the Navy received more than 3,000 requests for help within the first 24 hours of the storm.
As we begin to assess the full toll of Hurricane Michael, the Cajun Navy will be there, alongside other rescue workers, no matter the risk or how blurry the legal line is. (They’re a citizen team of “neighbors helping neighbors” as opposed to legally recognized first responders, which means they don’t usually meet the legal requirements for entering a disaster area.)
But as Cajun Navy president John Billiot told CNN, “If me rescuing people, and saving people’s lives [means] I get arrested, I said that’s no problem. America will have my back.”