WASHINGTON — Efforts to rescue victims of Hurricane Harvey last year landed two Louisiana residents presidential invitations from Donald Trump to his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
A representative of Louisiana's volunteer "Cajun Navy" and a New Orleans-based member of the U.S. Coast Guard were both praised by the White House for their roles in responding to the deadly August storm.
Jon Bridgers, of Walker, founded the nonprofit group "Cajun Navy 2016," one part of an unofficial, volunteer network of civilian boat owners popularly known as the "Cajun Navy" who mobilized to assist those affected by flooding in south Louisiana in 2016. Bridgers used a Facebook group to organize volunteers to help victims of Hurricane Harvey in southwest Louisiana and east Texas.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashlee Leppert, an aviation electronics technician at the U.S. Coast Guard's Air Station New Orleans, was among the first crews from the service to respond to Harvey, said Brandon Giles, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The White House highlighted a family's dramatic helicopter rescue in a press release announcing Leppert's invitation.
A woman being lifted in the Coast Guard helicopter's basket "was clutching a few bags of what Ashlee thought were clothes," the White House said. "As she drew the woman near, however, Ashlee saw four sets of children’s eyes looking at her as their guardian angel."
The White House Press Office released a list of 15 guests to the address on Monday, including Bridgers and Leppert alongside military veterans, law enforcement officers and small business owners.
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Presidents usually highlight the stories of special guests at the State of the Union.
Louisiana politicians praised the work of Leppert and pointed to Bridgers' invitation as well-earned recognition of the numerous volunteer "Cajun Navy" civilian rescue crews who've sprung into action following floods and hurricanes in recent years.
The term "Cajun Navy" gained popularity in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to describe a loosely organized flotilla of volunteer boaters who poured into New Orleans and other badly hit areas to rescue stranded residents.
During disasters, the Cajun Navy has been able to count on Louisiana anglers and hunters with experience navigating the state's swamps and marshes — as well as hundreds of flat-bottomed boats well-suited to shallow and debris-strewn floodwaters.
The Cajun Navy 2016 has helped thousands of people across the South and continue to collect resources and donations for those who lost their homes in the storms, according to the White House.
Bridgers helped organize a convoy of volunteers headed to the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey's record-breaking rainfall led to deadly floods. Bridgers told two reporters for The Advocate accompanying the group that the 2016 Baton Rouge-area floods changed his life.
"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."
“I commend President Trump for inviting two of Louisiana’s best to be his special guests at tomorrow’s State of the Union Address,” said Attorney General Jeff Landry. “Ashlee and Jon have both shown immense courage in the midst of the devastation Louisiana and our neighbors have had to endure."
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves released a statement Monday applauding the president's decision.
"Louisiana’s Cajun Navy shows us what’s possible when people from varied backgrounds come together, pool their talents and resources and work as one to serve their neighbors, friends and families in need," Graves said in the release.
"When floodwaters overwhelmed Louisiana in 2016 and Texas after Hurricane Harvey, the Cajun Navy, using their own boats and supplies, rescued fellow Americans in danger," said Cassidy. "I thank President Trump for recognizing these heroes."
"The results seen by the Cajun Navy 2016’s efforts to help those in need are an example of what can be accomplished when you don’t have stacks of governmental red tape to cut through,” said Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, in a statement praising Bridgers' invitation. “What the Navy was able to get done in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is simply incredible."
Cassidy was also pleased that Trump invited Leppert.
“It’s great that President Trump is highlighting a member of the Coast Guard stationed in New Orleans. They always do incredible work, but we in Louisiana especially appreciate their help during recent natural disasters,” Cassidy said.
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