HOUSTON — As seemingly everyone else sought higher ground, hoping to escape Harvey's historic floodwaters, the Cajun Navy hurtled into this rain-ravaged metropolis, traversing high waters and even securing a police escort for part of the day-long journey.
With more than 100 boats and pickups in tow, one branch of this Louisiana-based army of volunteer rescuers set out from Baton Rouge on Monday on its latest mission, hellbent on helping the thousands of displaced Texans facing a long road to recovery.
It was too dark to launch the vessels when the crew, known as Cajun Navy 2016, arrived here late Monday. But after a few hours of sleep, the volunteers were itching for action, assembling at a 7 a.m. briefing at Lyndsay/Lyons Park and Sports Complex before fanning out in groups to inundated neighborhoods.
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"It's so cold," said Ava Hamdhaider, one of several flood victims trapped at an apartment complex in Cinco Ranch, an affluent suburb west of the city that was one of several places the Cajun Navy deployed. Like other parts of the city, it looked more like a river than a neighborhood by Tuesday morning.
By Tuesday, Harvey had been pummeling this city for five days, drowning it in 45 inches of rain and leaving an unusually cold breeze in its wake — a chill that storm victims immediately noticed as they waded into floodwaters or climbed aboard Cajun Navy vessels.
Ava, 11, her sister, Pani, 17, and their father, Kamran, 52, had been stranded in their apartment since Monday, when authorities decided to release water from a nearby reservoir to protect other areas. On Tuesday, the family climbed aboard a camouflaged bass boat with Lee Mouk, a Cajun Navy captain, and one of his colleagues, Roger Mitchell, who ferried them down Westheimer Parkway, a thoroughfare that divides a golf course and a elementary school being used as a staging area for emergency operations.
Along the way, they passed a couple of completely flooded vehicles, including one that eerily still had its windshield wipers on at full speed even though it was almost entirely submerged — suggesting its driver narrowly escaped through an open window. The crowded road-turned-waterway was traveled by dozens of vessels, including one that was speeding at one point and endangering other boats.
"That's just dangerous," Mouk said, shaking his head. "They could capsize other vessels with those waves."
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The sound of helicopters hovering overhead and the whir of motorboats underscored the urgency of the situation. One member of the Cajun Navy 2016, Johnny Walker, of Walker, held a mechanical clicker to count the number of persons rescued.
It was only three days earlier that Mouk and Mitchell, both from Baton Rouge, joined the Cajun Navy 2016, a group of self-styled "coonasses" who used a walkie-talkie application on their smartphones to coordinate their convoy and rescue efforts.
The group has taken pains to differentiate itself from other fleets of the storied Cajun Navy, a loose umbrella term for a number of Louisiana rescue groups that have offered hurricane disaster relief since the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A member of an unrelated group, Clyde Cain, of the Louisiana Cajun Navy, made national headlines on Monday when he told CNN that his crew had been fired upon in Houston after stopping to repair a vessel.
Local authorities later said they had not received any reports of gunfire upon the volunteer group, and Cain later clarified, on Facebook, that his men reported shots being fired in the area, though it remained unclear whether anyone had been targeted.
Nevertheless, members of the Cajun Navy 2016 were nervous. They had traveled in a convoy from Baton Rouge to Humble, Texas, on Monday, having begun their journey at the Costco on Airline Drive after Jon Bridgers, a leader of the group, announced the rescue mission on Facebook.
The volunteers caravanned west, reconnoitering in Lafayette and Beaumont, Texas, where they picked up a police escort for several miles. Other sheriffs blocked traffic at various intersections along the way.
Several crew members sought to inject levity into the trip by joking over their walkie-talkies, making light of frequent lengthy stops to regroup. "If we rode this convoy in Iraq, we'd already be dead," one man quipped. At another point, someone asked who was leading the group and was jokingly told that everyone was following Clark Griswold, the fictional bumbler played by Chevy Chase in "Vacation."
Some of the members, like Kyle Rodrigue, have been in some form of the Cajun Navy since Katrina in 2005. Others, like Mouk and Mitchell, joined days ago. One couple from Florida joined the convoy in Baton Rouge after already having driven seven hours.
Asked about their motivation, many of the volunteers recalled the help they received from Texans a year ago, when Baton Rouge experienced its own historic flooding. It's an adrenaline rush for some, and, for others, an unqualified act of altruism.
Bridgers, one of the group's leaders, who runs the fleet's Facebook page, attributed his participation to a higher being. He said the 2016 flood in Baton Rouge left him a changed man.
"The Lord put something on my heart to make me feel different when that happened," Bridgers said. "It's a feeling like I've never really had before. "