Many more people would have died in the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 if not for hundreds of south Louisiana folks who met at Acadiana Mall in Lafayette and then hauled their boats to New Orleans, where they disregarded authorities’ orders to go back home because it was too dangerous.
The story of the citizen rescue, which unfolded over days in a devastated New Orleans, is told in a new documentary, “The Cajun Navy,” directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Allan Durand, who teamed with film students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for the project.
Durand on Tuesday told a few hundred people at the LITE Center in Lafayette that the caravan of boats and boaters who dropped everything to head east on Interstate 10 ended up rescuing more than 10,000 people.
Durand was among the guests celebrated at an event commemorating the rescuers and others who helped in the effort.
Tuesday’s event previewed a few minutes of the documentary, and also unveiled a new book that includes the story of the citizen boat rescues, “The Terrible Storms of 2005: Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita,” published by Acadian House Publishing in Lafayette.
Among the guests Tuesday were former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, retired Army Gen. Russel Honoré and the organizer of The Cajun Navy, Doug Bienvenu.
Katrina made landfall Aug. 29, 2005. Many tens of thousands of New Orleanians and some in neighboring St. Bernard Parish did not or could not leave. In New Orleans, hundreds drowned after levees built along two canals connected to Lake Ponchartrain gave way and flooded much of the city.
Many who sought safety in their attics beat holes in the roofs and climbed out to escape the rising water. They needed help badly, and it was with these people in the crucial first days after the storm that the boaters from Cajunland made their mark.
At the time, government officials didn’t or couldn’t deploy rescue boats, which threw much of the responsibility on the shoulders of citizen rescuers who rode house to house, according to the film.
Brian Smelker, of Lafayette, said the caravan was stopped by officers with Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, who told them it was too dangerous to proceed. Authorities also told them “we don’t need you.”
Smelker said that as he was being told to turn back, he could see people on roofs who needed help. All the while, the sound of gunshots could be heard, he said. “It was pretty obvious it was a serious situation,” Smelker said.
While many of the boaters turned around and headed back home, many did not.
Told he would go to jail if he didn’t return home, he said, “Well, it won’t be the first time.”
Bienvenu and his girlfriend, Drue Leblanc, who rode alongside him in his airboat, ended up rescuing hundreds of people over three days.