Walt Handelsman: Cajun Navy

In a scriptural story passed down through the ages, a handful of fishermen without special title or authority find themselves called to be fishers of men. The story resonates among believers and nonbelievers alike because it speaks to a fundamental truth. Sometimes, when you need saving the most, it’s not the big hand of power, privilege or position that plucks you from oblivion. It is, instead, the humble hand of a neighbor who’s felt the urge to do a little good in the world.

Last month, as an epic flood stranded residents across south Louisiana, distressed disaster victims in the darkest hours of their lives spotted boats heading towards them with modern-day fishers of men. Sportsmen who normally used their watercraft to catch fish instead took to the rising currents to haul up their fellow residents who desperately needed help.

The heroes hailed from the Cajun Navy, the nickname for an impromptu flotilla of volunteers who had no admiral, no uniforms, no military medals awaiting them for acts of valor. It was conscience, not a commanding officer, that summoned them into treacherous currents to carry endangered citizens to higher ground. An earlier Cajun Navy formed after Hurricane Katrina had performed similar acts of bravery 11 years ago. But this summer’s effort was much larger, because Baton Rouge flooded without warning, with water creeping into homes overnight, while an estimated 9 out of 10 New Orleanians had evacuated.     

Such history affirms the resilience of Louisiana’s people, which will be celebrated today at a Red Stick Together music concert in downtown Baton Rouge. As part of the concert, a handful of heroes from last month’s Cajun Navy will be recognized. They were among more than 175 volunteers whose stories of selflessness were submitted to The Advocate after we asked readers to share their stories of Cajun Navy heroes. Those to be honored at the concert are profiled in today’s edition of The Advocate’s Eat, Play, Live section. The many other profiles of Cajun Navy volunteers appear online at theadvocate.com.

We asked readers to report what the Cajun Navy had done because we knew that these courageous rescuers wouldn’t brag about themselves. True heroes seldom regard their own courage as remarkable.

Mark Thibidaux and his family had been stranded on his roof for 16 hours after the flood when Scott Ayers, a professional fisherman who lives in Houma, arrived to save them. “My wife, Tammy, offered to pay him for the rescue, and his response is something we will never forget as long as we live,” Thibidaux recalled. “I don’t want your money, ma’am,” Ayers said. “I just want y’all to remember that down here we don’t turn our backs on our neighbors in time of need. This is a bad deal, but we as a community are stronger than any flood waters, winds or whatever else is thrown at us. We will come back from this and come back bigger and better than ever.”

In a time of tyranny abroad, terrorism in our streets and tensions on the campaign trail, it’s easy to feel pessimistic. That’s why the actions of the Cajun Navy deserve praise. These volunteers did more than rescue flood victims. They also rescued our sense of possibility for the human spirit.