Civilians and ‘Cajun Navy’ bring their own boats to rescue Harvey victims

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HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 28: People are rescued from a flooded neighborhood after it was inundated with rain water, remnants of Hurricane Harvey, on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

HOUSTON — In the thick of disaster, help doesn’t always come from a helicopter or a rescuer in a uniform. Sometimes, it’s a makeshift fleet of pickup trucks and johnboats, speeding toward danger as almost everyone else is trying to get out.

The Cajun Navy, the famous volunteer rescue group that formed in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, mobilized to Houston to deliver desperate residents from Harvey’s downpour. Clyde Cain, who runs the group’s social media, told CNN they started deploying people in the early hours of Monday morning.

“There are hundreds of volunteers and we’ve already made hundreds of rescues,” he told CNN. “Our goal is to help people get out if they are trapped in their homes or apartments, get them to safety.”

As Katrina survivors and witnesses, these men and women know what it’s like to feel floodwaters rise around them with no guarantee of salvation.

In Houston, they now join locals and other out-of-towners who are patrolling waterlogged streets, opening their doors to strangers in need, offering their time and talents and choosing to help others instead of seeking higher ground.


Cajun Navy brings boats from Louisiana to help flood-ravaged Houston

The boat turned onto a Houston waterway that used to be a street, and the three volunteers from Louisiana’s Cajun Navy saw what they first thought was debris, caught in the rapid current of rushing floodwaters.

They quickly realized that what they were looking at was a person, an elderly woman, floating face down as the current swept her away.

“Donnie jumped from the vessel (and) brought her up out of the water,” Cajun Navy volunteer Joshua Lincoln told CNN’s John Berman on “AC 360” Monday night.

“Ricky was manning the boat. He jumped in immediately also. I was at the front of the boat, leaving us in a serious current with nobody manning the motor in the back,” Lincoln said, referring to his colleagues by their first names only. The New Orleans Times-Picayune identified them as Donnie Davenport and Ricky Berrigan.

“So they quickly grabbed her, started to resuscitate her, and were able to get her to breathing slowly, and then we were able to control the boat. We got her back to safety, and that’s that.”

The rescue of the Houston woman on Monday was one of several credited to volunteers from the Cajun Navy, a grassroots citizens’ organization that came together in the aftermath of another hurricane in another state more than a decade ago.

In the devastation and deep water left by Hurricane Katrina, Louisianans took to their boats to help each other, and the Cajun Navy was born. Now, they are helping their Texas neighbors.

A flotilla of some 20 boats, hauled on trucks and trailers, came to Houston over the weekend to join the rescue effort, according to Cajun Navy organizer Clyde Cain.

“We started deploying people (Monday) morning at 3 a.m.,” Cain told CNN. “Our goal is to help people get out if they are trapped in their homes or apartments, get them to safety.”

Later Monday, Cain told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that more boats had come from Louisiana after the initial group.

“We have no idea how long it’s going to last (in Houston),” he said.

The Cajun Navy has grown since it was organized in Louisiana in 2005 and now has thousands of followers on its Facebook page. The organization helps communities with storm preparations, rescues and food distribution. It has no official relationship with the US Navy.

Facebook and the phone application Zello is how the group finds out about people in need and connects them with volunteers who can assist them, Cain said.

And with Harvey, now a drenching tropical storm, heading toward Louisiana, there is the looming possibility the Cajun Navy might be needed back in its home state.

Lincoln explained their presence in Houston in personal terms of getting help, then giving it in return.

“In my life I’ve been through a lot of storms including Katrina,” he said. “Seeing how people in Texas responded and helped us in a disaster kind of tugged at my heart. My house was flooded and I lost all kinds of things during Katrina.”

When he heard about the disastrous situation in Houston and the people desperate for aid and assistance, he decided, “I’m not going to work. I’m just going to head that way and meet up with somebody and do what I can do. That’s what every man in the Cajun Navy has done, (every) man and woman.”

Lincoln said the elderly woman pulled from Houston’s waters was “doing fine” Monday night and was reunited with relatives.

“We found three family members — the family members thought she was safe at a high ground, (at) a school. They were misinformed. A gentleman through the Cajun Navy in Baton Rouge was able to locate the relatives and have them get back over to her.”

Have boat, will rescue

Austin Seth doesn’t even live in Dickinson, Texas. The Lake Jackson resident traveled an hour with his boat to help rescue flood victims in the Houston suburb because he saw a call for help on Facebook.

When he spoke to CNN’s Ed Lavandera on Sunday, he said he already had rescued about a dozen people.

Over the weekend, public entities around Houston put out a call for volunteers with boats, and people like Seth were quick to respond.

Even those who escaped flooded areas were quick to man their own boats and head back to help.

With one hand on the large white boat he managed to bring with him from his flooded neighborhood, a Texas resident told CNN he was about to pick up eight people who had asked him for help on his way out.

After that, he said, he was going to do it all again and “save some more.”

Victims become heroes

Jim McIngvale owns two furniture and mattress stores in the Houston area. They sit on high ground, so even though his city is paralyzed McIngvale isn’t worried about flooding. In fact, he has opened up his stores to house anyone in need.

“We did this during Katrina and we had a couple hundred people staying for a couple days,” he told CNN. “We have tons of mattress in our warehouse and we can provide with a blanket. They sleep with mattress with plastic on it, and recliners, and wherever they wanted. We have a restaurant inside the stores and we are feeding them for free.”

In Rockland, Texas, some 250 residents have taken shelter in an elementary school. According to ABC News, the operation is manned mostly by young people who sleep in shifts and handle everything from leaks in the ceiling to making sure everyone in the building is comfortable and safe.

“At the end of the day, we’re family, you know, because it brings everyone together,” high school student Josh Campbell told ABC News.

So far, the group has not received any outside help. But like so many victims of Harvey’s flooding, they are making do with what they have — each other.