As Hurricane Florence barreled toward the East Coast with the potential to cause catastrophic damage, the Baton Rouge branch of the Cajun Navy was preparing Wednesday morning to send an estimated 100 volunteers to South Carolina equipped with boats and emergency supplies.
The group has received national recognition — 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.
Though Florence poses the most immediate threat to American lives, responders are also monitoring two other tropical systems that could hit closer to home over the next several days — Tropical Storm Isaac in the Caribbean and a disturbance in the Gulf of Mexico that could develop later this week.
WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Communities along the Carolina coast buttoned up against the onslaught of Hurricane Florence as forecasters Wednesday …
"We may have to ricochet right back, depending on what happens with these other storms," said volunteer Brien McGlynn. "We go where the weather goes, wherever the most help is needed."
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 in September 1989 and helped with rescue efforts then.
McGlynn and other United Cajun Navy volunteers planned to leave Baton Rouge sometime Wednesday, driving northeast in the group's new mobile command unit, a repurposed ambulance that will serve as an office and dispatch center.
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The vehicle was purchased earlier this week using funds raised by family and friends of Sadie Thibodeaux, a Baton Rouge woman who was killed in a possible boating accident in Lake Pontchartrain last month. United Cajun Navy volunteers including McGlynn helped recover her body.
Some of her relatives were helping collect supplies for the trip as volunteers gathered outside the Walmart on O'Neal Lane starting at 7 a.m. Wednesday. They watched as decals were placed on the new mobile command unit, which they've dubbed "Sadie's Search" and which arrived just in time for response efforts ahead of Florence.
"We did this in Sadie's honor," said her mother, Deborah Thibodeaux. "We wanted to help because that's what Sadie did — she helped people."
United Cajun Navy founder and president Todd Terrell said the mobile command unit will house equipment needed to process background checks and issue ID cards for volunteers — part of recent efforts backed by state legislation to better organize and coordinate Cajun Navy activities as the group has drawn national attention in the wake of the 2016 floods in southeast Louisiana and Hurricane Harvey, which struck Houston last summer.
"So many people want to volunteer now," Terrell said. "We need to organize so we can make the best use of all this support."
Nearly a hundred Louisiana emergency personnel are headed north to the Carolinas as Hurricane Florence bears down on the coastline.
Walmart shoppers also dropped off emergency supplies Wednesday morning, handing bags of merchandise to volunteers who had set up shop under a tent outside the store.
Two pickup trucks arrived with supplies from the Baton Rouge Police Department, dozens of plastic storage bins filled with leftover donations collected in the aftermath of Harvey.
"The community stepped up and overloaded us for sure," said Sgt. Rendy Richard, a Baton Rouge police officer and president of the nonprofit Behind the Line BR. "We had a lot of supplies that weren't able to fit into trucks so we stored them in case there was another emergency. … Then we got a call from the Cajun Navy and realized this was a good time to kind of pay it forward."
United Cajun Navy volunteers are planning to set up shop in Columbia, South Carolina.
They're hoping to coordinate with emergency response agencies from the Baton Rouge area also sending crews to the East Coast this week. Baton Rouge Fire Department spokesman Curt Monte said a task force made up of 32 local fire and EMS personnel left on Tuesday.
Entergy also announced Wednesday its plans to send 200 employees and contractors to help restore power following "anticipated widespread damage" from the storm.