Cajun Navy.jpg

Members of the United Cajun Navy pose for a photo in North Carolina.

It was about 8:30 p.m. Saturday when Cajun Navy volunteers received word that floodwaters were moving into neighborhoods near where the group had set up camp in Wilmington, North Carolina.

The volunteers were housed in a church hall built on higher ground. Nearby neighborhoods were not so fortunate. 

Hours later, the group had rescued about 250 people from the area and realized there were no shelters with available spaces for them to go. So the volunteers welcomed everyone into their camp — more than tripling the number of people crowded into the hall, which had lost power sometime earlier but was stocked with food and emergency supplies.

"We made do with Plan B — took everything we know as Cajuns and adapted," said Todd Terrell, founder and president of the United Cajun Navy based in Baton Rouge. "We've been doing this a long time. … We've saved a lot of lives."

Terrell spoke to The Advocate via telephone Wednesday from Wilmington, where the group is continuing to help rescue people and distribute supplies to shelters. He said the combination of tidal movement and flooding has created "the most treacherous water I've ever seen" because currents are moving so fast even in places where the water level is relatively low. 

About 35 volunteers from the Baton Rouge area remained in North Carolina as of Wednesday, with plans to return home at the end of the week.

Terrell said most rescues are complete, though the rivers in and around Wilmington — the area hit hardest during the storm — aren't expected to crest until sometime Thursday or Friday. The major problem now is that most roads remain closed, so volunteers are using boats to deliver food and emergency supplies to shelters.

More than 300 volunteers with the United Cajun Navy traveled to North Carolina ahead of Hurricane Florence last week and spent several days assisting local agencies with rescue efforts after massive amounts of rain left homes destroyed and residents displaced. The group had responded to more than 1,500 calls for service as of Wednesday afternoon, some requests for help from local first responders and others coming directly from residents, often through social media.

Members have received national recognition in recent months — including a commendation during President Donald Trump's 2018 State of the Union address — as a heartening example of everyday heroism: Americans helping each other out during tough times. 

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Trump also praised the organization during his remarks Wednesday morning following a briefing on Florence recovery efforts in North Carolina.

"Most importantly, we give thanks to the incredible first responders, including sheriffs, police officers, firefighters (and) our great Cajun Navy," he said. "They put themselves, all of them, in harm's way. And what they've done to save precious lives of our citizens has been nothing short of incredible." 

The Louisiana State Fire Marshal's Office and several fire departments from the Baton Rouge area also sent personnel to North Carolina last week with many planning to remain there over the next several days. 

Cajun Navy volunteers pointed to the honorable and rewarding aspects of the job, which have led the group to continue expanding since Hurricane Katrina prompted its founding. But it's also dangerous, filled with reminders of the risks associated with civilian rescue missions. 

Members use permanent markers to write their name, Social Security number and emergency contact information on their forearms or torsos before going out in the field. They also wear life vests and lanyards attaching them to their boats.

"Imagine being stuck in your house with water levels rising. Imagine the fear and anxiety for people in that moment," said volunteer Brien McGlynn, of Baton Rouge. "But then also imagine the stress of being the rescuer and trying to save these people without completely jeopardizing your own life. It's just unreal what everyone is going through."

McGlynn served for 22 years in the U.S. Navy as a nurse. He was stationed in North Carolina when Hurricane Hugo made landfall just north of Charleston, South Carolina, in September 1989 and helped with rescue efforts then. He was at home in Baton Rouge when the 2016 floods inundated south Louisiana.

McGlynn spent several days in North Carolina, returning home earlier this week. He said you really can't compare major storms because "each has its own personality," but Florence can be characterized by "copious amounts of water with nowhere to go." He described whole neighborhoods and even small towns underwater, like "lakes with roofs popping up" above the surface.

Images of homes underwater are familiar sights for members of the Cajun Navy. And many recall similar struggles of their own.

"There's a lot of empathy for what these people are going through," McGlynn said. "The biggest gratitude lies in knowing you made a difference in someone's life — maybe even saved a life. That's one of those things that gets etched in your heart and sticks with you forever."


Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.