Ray Nothstine: Cajun Navy reflects the best of civil society

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 8, 2021

By Ray Nothstine

If you’ve ever seen an armada of small boats and pickups barreling down highways 90 or 10, chances are you’ve spotted the Cajun Navy.

The all-volunteer force from Louisiana takes its name from the Acadian ethnic heritage that populates much of South Louisiana. For disaster rescue, most recently with Hurricane Ida, nobody is better at saving lives and showcasing the power of volunteerism like the Cajun Navy.

Many of Louisiana’s residents are experts when it comes to operating boats. It’s a part of their daily life and traditions on the waters and bayous of Louisiana. The Cajun Navy started putting its skills to collective use during Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005. They rescued over 30,000 during flooding in Louisiana in 2016. Their generosity has expanded so much they deployed to North Carolina during Hurricane Isaias in 2020.

Beyond the heroics of literally plucking people from the tops of roofs amid violent storms, this army of volunteers is reminding us of the value of a robust civil society and the limits of relying on the government.

“FEMA and the National Guard, they are not set up to be first responders,” United Cajun Navy spokesperson Brian Trascher recently told Fox News. “There is a gap between when the government can respond and when people actually need immediate help, and that’s the gap we fill.”

In what became a rising phenomenon during the 20th century, media and politicians are quick to focus on how the federal government reacts to disaster response and relief. Pressure for federal involvement and spending intensified after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Yet, Hurricane Katrina powerfully showed the limits of bureaucracy and politics as the state and the local response was bungled by former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and the city of New Orleans, not to mention the myriad problems such as supply chain failures and indecision at the federal level under FEMA.

In an increasingly politicized world, where more scrutiny is placed on the federal response, the volunteerism of the Cajun Navy remains a prolific force of effective spontaneity. They embody qualities and precision the government can’t replicate, often due to comprehensive rules and regulations that paralyze ingenuity and rapid response.

Despite FEMA spending $24 billion on natural disaster response in 2020, it’s the Cajun Navy and like-minded volunteers who now take command of responding to natural disasters and flooding along the Gulf Coast. They are not only the first responders heavily involved in initial rescue efforts, but they are the ones speaking to media outlets and giving residents on the ground situational updates of damage and danger zones. The media relies on their expertise.

The charitable and lifesaving efforts offer up a contagious spirit. After Hurricane Harvey devastated southeastern Texas in 2017, the Cajun Navy was first to respond. Texans remember that and are now quick to chip in and help Louisianians in their time of need.

Disasters and the offering of oneself to help others is an essential reminder we are more united than those intent on fanning the flames of division. Rescuers, often at the risk of their own lives, address an urgent need. Unlike that intent on division, they don’t obsess over race or the gender identity of those they help.

“Cajun Navy Foundation believes that in today’s world, there is no reason that compassionate neighbors in affected communities can’t fill the void and bring relief as efficiently and as fast as any established entity,” declares the group. “In fact, we think this model will be faster.

The spirit of giving and unity, particularly in times of need, is one of America’s great virtues. Bobby Jindal, another former governor of Louisiana, once said in a speech in Charlotte that “America is not the federal government.” Powerfully, the Cajun Navy reminds us of the importance of that truth.

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the Carolina Journal, where this column first appeared.