*orginally published in Marsh & Bayou magazine, September 2016
On August 11, 2016, central Louisiana experienced a weather event unlike anything in our history. An unnamed storm came to a standstill over Baton Rouge, Lafayette, and the surrounding areas, and proceeded to dump trillions of gallons of rainwater mercilessly onto those parishes over the next several days. Catastrophic flooding began on August 12 and continued daily as riverbanks overflowed and floodwaters rushed over tops of levees into residential areas.
While the rest of Louisiana watched in horror, one St. Bernard resident, Jared Serigné, posted on social media that he was gathering details on flooded areas and looking for anyone with boats to go and assist where they could. Since I taught Jared in high school many years ago, I began following his posts and his efforts to coordinate volunteers to aid in rescuing residents who were trapped in their homes or stranded in their vehicles along miles of flooded interstate.
Early Saturday morning, Jared packed up his boat and headed north into the flooded area. When he was asked, “Why you?” his answer was simply, “Because I have a boat.” Jared knew authorities had been dispatched, but he also knew that police, firefighters, and the Coast Guard could not possibly handle the thousands in need of rescue, nor did they have the required number of boats and operators to do the job. Jared says his response is typical of many in the hunting and fishing community. “You can’t know you have a perfectly good boat for this type of thing, the ability and expertise to navigate in these dangerous conditions, and just sit home and not help.” For the rest of the weekend Jared and his crew of buddies ran rescue missions into neighborhoods in East Baton Rouge, picking up people who were praying for a miracle in their flooded homes and vehicles, and dropping them off to higher ground where they could then be transported to shelters.
“You can’t know you have a perfectly good boat for this type of thing, the ability and expertise to navigate in these dangerous conditions, and just sit home and not help.”
By Sunday afternoon, Jared’s small crew of boats had grown to over 60, and the name Cajun Navy began to surface. Dozens of volunteers in their own boats appeared in affected areas around Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Denham Springs and Gonzales, running rescue missions, bringing in emergency supplies, and helping law enforcement authorities wherever they could. It is estimated over 140,000 homes were affected by the flood. Jared worked to organize teams of volunteers in the Monticello subdivision in East Baton Rouge. In spite of a few obstacles to their efforts, they were able to pull nearly 600 people from their homes. “Sometimes we had to circumnavigate roadblocks to get to the people who were desperate for rescue, and sometimes terrified victims waved us on, choosing instead to wait it out in spite of the dangers. Cell phones were not working, so lack of communication complicated the situation.” In the midst of what Governor Bel Edwards deemed a “historic, unprecedented flooding event,” volunteers communicated via social media to get to those in need.
One of the couples following Jared’s lead from St. Bernard Parish, Jason and Rachel Bazile, used Facebook to let stranded Denham Springs residents know they were available by boat. After bravely crossing the Amite River’s dangerous currents, they came upon a young woman with two small children (a 2-month old and toddler) who were on their porch without blankets or raincoats, waiting for help to arrive. Rachel remembered being in a similar situation during Katrina, and she made it her personal mission to get this woman and her babies to safety. After securing some blankets and getting them all to higher ground, she called her parents and asked them to drive as far as they could toward the area to help. Jason, Rachel, and her parents worked together to get many stranded residents out of the flooded neighborhoods to safety.
These are just a few of the individual, uncoordinated efforts of volunteers who donated their time and energy, risked their boats and livelihoods to help others in this terrifying and life-threatening situation. These are the people who make up what is now being called the Cajun Navy. Kyler Moppert is a Baton Rouge resident who used his flatboat to navigate through the neighborhoods surrounding his own home to rescue those in need. Kyler says he’s been thanked by everyone, dozens and dozens of people, for his efforts during the flood, but that he certainly wasn’t looking for recognition. “This is the nature of a hunter and fisherman. We are wired to go into risky situations.” He explains that there’s nothing else he would have done besides participate in rescue efforts. “It’s like a lab puppy retrieving a duck. You don’t ask the Labrador why he’s retrieving. He just does it. It’s in his nature. This is what Louisiana outdoorsmen do.” Like Jared Serigné, Kyler says the police and Wildlife and Fisheries agents who were dispatched in his area weren’t a tenth of what was needed in that situation. “Louisiana anglers are diligent, capable, driven, and compassionate. We mobilized ourselves without any organization necessary.” Kyler went door to door, pulling horses out of pens, trying to convince skeptical residents to evacuate to safety before the water rose even higher, and even personally rescued a baby deer. On one of his trips, he picked up a husband and wife from their flooded residence who were carrying laptop bags and zippered garment bags of dress clothes. Both were doctors, and both were prepared to go to work immediately upon being rescued. “Everyone was in good spirits. A flood affects everyone, so no one feels personally targeted, no one feels sorry for himself. Race and class are irrelevant in situations like this.”
The flooding continued well into the following week, by which time hundreds of volunteers were taking off of work, packing their boats full of supplies, donning life vests, and heading into the disaster zones where more than 10 rivers had reached record flood levels. No one sent out a call to arms, no one acted as “head” of the Cajun Navy, and the vast majority of the volunteers didn’t look for direction, they simply showed up and helped wherever they could. With a growing number of fatalities and widespread flood damage across several parishes, there was plenty of work to be done. Unfortunately in the midst of these efforts, rumors began to surface that there was a “Go Fund Me” account set up in the name of the Cajun Navy to reimburse volunteers for gas, wear and tear on their boats, and lost wages. This disgusted a great number of fishermen and boat operators and caused them to disassociate themselves from the name. Although the Cajun Navy had been credited with rescuing thousands of people and animals from flooded areas, most of the volunteers wouldn’t ever seek to be recognized or compensated. With their reputations at stake, boat owners continued to work selflessly, omitting the #cajunnavy hashtag in their pictures and social media posts to avoid being grouped with anyone who would seek to benefit from the tragedy.
When Jared Serigné announced publicly that he was in no way connected with any kind of fundraising efforts for himself or his teams of boat operators, I began searching for clarification on the Cajun Navy.
Thankfully, my friend at the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and seasoned charter captain Sam Barbera offered to shed some light on the controversy, and give some much-needed guidance to anglers for the future. First, Captain Sam put an end to the question of who does and who does not “belong” to the Cajun Navy. “The term Cajun Navy began 15 years ago after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. Back then, if you put your boat in the water to help others, you were a member of the Cajun Navy, and you wore that badge with honor.” He explained it is the same today, and it’s similar to being a part of the Who-Dat Nation. If you’ve ever cheered for the Saints, worn a black and gold jersey on game day, or been to a game in the Superdome, you’re a member. Captain Sam says there’s no leader, no rank structure, nothing formal in the Cajun Navy. It’s just a bunch of boat operators who want to serve in times of crisis. He insists, “Any hint of fundraising efforts on our behalf is offensive to the core. None of the true boat operators who were out on the water want to be paid back.” Even though they incurred damages to their boats and motors, expenses and various personal injuries, Captain Sam says the Cajun Navy isn’t about adding up the cost of saving lives. He says this isn’t the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last, that Louisiana outdoorsmen put their boats in the water and head into the wake of a storm to help. He says, “If there’s a weather disaster, they will show up, period.”
With this in mind, Captain Sam has some guidance for those volunteering to help in future catastrophes. “The two most essential things for any boat operator to have is mobility and communication.” He explains that mobility means first and foremost, the boat has to be in good working condition. There must be both an operator and a deckhand on each boat, plenty of food, water, and lifejackets, and everyone on the rescue mission has to be physically well. “If the boat operator doesn’t take care of himself and his basic needs, he can’t work optimally to rescue others.” Captain Sam says trustworthy communication is imperative also. When cell phone towers no longer work, people in boats must have clear contact with local municipal authorities and with other boat operators. He recommends every boat owner use VHF handheld radios on channel 68 or 69 during an emergency to know where to go and to be able to feed vital information to other volunteers. When AT&T went out completely, Captain Sam maintained contact with law enforcement in East Baton Rouge parish and was able to participate safely in rescue efforts in teams dispatched throughout the week.
After his long weekend in the affected areas, Jared Serigné agrees with Captain Sam. “The last thing we need is people going into the situation who end up needing to be rescued themselves.” He says boat owners who wish to participate in rescue efforts should consider swiftwater rescue training to be most effective in the future.
Ryan Romero, a boat owner from Sulfur, Louisiana, volunteered to work with the National Guard in Baton Rouge and Lafayette during the worst days of the flooding. He describes the Cajun Navy as a group of big-hearted men and women who simply want to use what they have to help wherever they can. This is the spirit of the Cajun Navy. “Regardless of where tragedy occurs, we will always pull together and help others.”
“Regardless of where tragedy occurs, we will always pull together and help others.”
Weather tragedies of this magnitude are horrific to experience, but in the midst of them, here in Louisiana, we find moments of pure gold in the character of those affected and in the generosity and kindness of their community. Personally, I’m proud to have taught some of the very men who mobilized teams and gave their time and skills to be of service, proud of the selfless efforts of all of the members of the Cajun Navy, and proud to call Louisiana home.