Faith Life, November 2016

The Cajun Navy

A personal calling to do the right thing. 

by Lisa Tramontana

cajun-navy-10It’s been more than two months since the Great Flood of 2016 ravaged South Louisiana, and time seemed to stand still. For thousands of stranded residents, salvation came not from law enforcement or first responders, but from regular citizens calling themselves the Cajun Navy.

For many flood victims, they seemed to appear out of nowhere — coming into view down a flooded highway, or rounding a corner in a water-filled neighborhood. They came on fishing boats, motorboats, canoes, aluminum jon boats — on anything that would float. They came in the clear blue dawn and in the darkening dusk. They came in the bright sunshine all day long. They were young, old, black, white, male and female. Many of the rescued say they will never forget the faces of their rescuers even though many of their names have been lost or were never known at all.

No matter. The Cajun Navy captains (anyone with a boat and a desire to help) didn’t want recognition. They simply wanted to do the right thing.

cajun-navy-2For Chris King of Prairieville, that meant helping a fellow employee who lived in Denham Springs and was stranded in her home with another family. The group numbered six adults, two toddlers, two elderly family members, and several dogs. Although she had called for help several times, no one had yet arrived. So King contacted his friends Joshua and Nicholas Loupe of Morgan City, and the three set out on a dangerous mission that would take 11 hours and would test their faith more than once.

“We’re all men of faith,” King said. “Before we even put our boats in the water, we stood and held hands and prayed. We asked God to watch over us, to give us wisdom and keep us safe. I think because of that, we didn’t have a lot of fear. We kept going even when we thought it might be smarter to turn around and go back.”

cajun-navy-3Their mission was a success and King and the Loupe brothers established the Cajun Army just days after their Cajun Navy experience.

Jon Bridgers Sr. is another Cajun Navy member. At 3 a.m. on Saturday, August 13, a friend called him and asked if he would create a Facebook page to help people facilitate rescues in and around the town of Watson, where the streets were flooding at an alarming rate. Over the next few hours, people posted comments, shared information, and among themselves, connected volunteers with flood victims.

“By daybreak, I had gotten out my 21-foot boat, which seats about eight people,” Bridgers said. “My aunt had called me from Denham Springs and she needed help. The water was in her house. I ended up rescuing her and a friend who lived nearby.”

It would be a long day for Bridgers, followed by a long month, in which he helped people clean up their homes, collected water, food and clothing for flood victims, and drove his own truck to deliver supplies to towns as far away as Maurepas, French Settlement and Springfield.

cajun-navy-8Why? Why were so many people willing to risk their own lives in the service of others?

“I’m a Christian, God-fearing man,” said Bridgers. “If I see a neighbor who needs help – whether it’s life threatening or he just needs a helping hand – the Lord puts it on my heart to reach out and help in any way I can. So there’s no thinking about it or wondering about it. I’m going to do it because it’s the right thing.”

Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper published a Cajun Navy special edition, which featured local residents sharing their own stories in their own words. Many recall offering their Cajun Navy captains money for their time and trouble … but there were no takers. One couple offered money to their rescuer, who responded that he only wanted them to remember that, “down here, we don’t turn our backs on our neighbors in times of need. As a community, we’re stronger than any flood waters.”

Indeed, many residents were inspired to join the Cajun Navy after watching the news or seeing posts on Instagram and Facebook. Media coverage was slow in the first days, but picked up as the magnitude of the crisis became clear. The images stirred up waves of guilt, especially for those who had the means to help, but were instead sitting at home safe and sound.

In Baton Rouge on the Sunday morning of the flood, a growing number of people were checking in with the State Police offering their assistance. The Baton Rouge Costco off of Interstate 12 was quickly becoming a bustling hub of National Guardsmen, law enforcement officers and “regular” citizens. Although some agencies publicly expressed frustration at the idea of (untrained) volunteers organizing rescues, most eventually welcomed the help as the waters continued to rise in the next few days and the number of flooded homes grew by the thousands.

cajun-navy-4Rob Gaudet was involved in many rescues during the flooding, and is considered a leader within the Cajun Navy. He worked alongside law enforcement with volunteers who kept going even though they had barely slept in days. When the deputies had to leave and it was dark outside, the Cajun Navy team was still working … because it was personal. “It was their moms, friends and neighbors out there,” he said.

On September 25, a Red Stick Together concert was held in downtown Baton Rouge to honor the Cajun Navy, and celebrate their bravery. Though no one wanted to be called a hero, several Cajun Navy members were singled out, including Marshal “Big Hog” Hoglund, who was on his way to rescue his girlfriend’s grandmother in Central. On the way, he found an abandoned boat, tied it to his wrist, and then swam with it for two miles to the grandmother’s home. He ended up saving dozens of people in Central.

Emileigh Searcy and Joey Bernard rescued a Pointe Coupee sheriff’s deputy who had been thrown from his boat and was clinging to a tree as a strong current swirled around him. Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard and his deputies reportedly carried out thousands of rescues despite the fact that many of them had lost their own homes in the flood. And the list goes on and on and on.

Significant changes are coming soon for the Cajun Navy. Members from different offshoots of the group have held meetings to discuss becoming more organized and to focus on issues such as training, leadership, regulation, communications and other concerns.

No matter what the future holds, this sea of Good Samaritans will forever be remembered for their courage in the face of devastation, and kindness in the face of incredible pain and loss.  They have earned a place in Louisiana history and Louisiana’s heart.