‘Cajun Navy’ displays community resilience amidst disaster along the Gulf Coast | Global Resilience Institute

With thousands of people stranded and displaced by Hurricane Harvey, volunteer civilian groups have been joining the rescue efforts across the deluged Gulf Coast. Though thousands of responders from local, county, state, and federal agencies are leading relief efforts, resources are still overwhelmed by the high volume of rescue requests. Grassroots organizations like the ‘Cajun Navy’ have been helping to relieve public agencies by operating their own communication systems and dispatching volunteer boaters to people in need of assistance.

National Guardsmen rescue people from a house after Hurricane Harvey
National Guardsmen rescue people from a house after Hurricane Harvey. – U.S. Department of Defense

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the governor of Louisiana called upon civilians to assist with rescue efforts in New Orleans; with a fleet of just 23 boats and 30 volunteers, the Cajun Navy was born. Consisting mostly of amateur boaters from the Gulf Coast region, the Cajun Navy has since grown to thousands of volunteers. In addition to offering support in catastrophes such as Katrina and Harvey, the Cajun Navy has supported relief operations in other lesser flooding incidents that have occurred in the area.

One new advantage the Cajun Navy has gained since its inception is the prevalence of smartphone technology. Due to widespread disruptions to cable, internet, and telephone service, the Cajun Navy has been communicating through a free app called Zello, which functions as an internet-based “walkie-talkie”. Though the app does require access to cellular data or Wi-Fi, it is specifically designed to function with a weak signal, making it a valuable communication tool in post-disaster areas that may have limited cell service. The Cajun Navy has been using Zello to coordinate information between responders on boats, dispatchers, and people in need of rescue. Those requesting rescue or assistance would relay any relevant information, which usually included their name, address, number of people in need of rescue, and any health issues; that information would then be entered into an interactive map that allowed dispatchers to facilitate rescue operations by specific neighborhoods.

In addition to the Cajun Navy, several other volunteer groups are similarly contributing to the rescue efforts in Texas and Louisiana. Cajun Coast Search and Rescue, founded in 2013, consists of around 36 “trained and certified” volunteer first-responders and has been very active in Harvey’s aftermath. Another organization involved in ongoing rescue efforts, Team Rubicon, began in 2010 and deploys teams of volunteer military veterans to disasters across the globe. Among the countless volunteers lending help across the region, many were not associated with any organizations and simply took it upon themselves to haul their boats down to Houston and begin seeking out those in need of assistance. While the Harvey disaster continues to unfold, these courageous volunteers offer an encouraging glimpse of the community resilience that is a proudly held characteristic of the Gulf Coast region.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 911 dispatchers taking 1,000 calls per hour in areas hardest hit by Harvey, says FEMA – FOX San Antonio
  2. Louisiana’s ‘Cajun Navy’ rooted in its beginnings during Katrina – ABC 13
  3. Louisiana’s ‘Cajun Navy’ sets sail in fishing boats to rescue flood victims – USA Today
  4. Hurricane Harvey leaves Texans without internet, phone service – San Antonio Express-News
  5. The ‘Cajun Navy’s’ secret weapon for saving lives: The human voice – The Washington Post
  6. Houston Harvey Rescue Map – Cajun Navy/Google
  7. I’m rescuing people from the floods after Harvey. It’s worse than I expected. – The Washington Post
  8. Team Rubicon volunteers respond to help with Harvey relief efforts – KWQC
  9. On Roads Turned Waterways, Volunteers Improvise to Save the Trapped and Desperate – The New York Times