The Cajun Navy are informal ad-hoc volunteer groups comprising private boat owners who assist in search and rescue efforts in Louisiana and adjacent areas. These groups were formed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and reactivated in the aftermath of the 2016 Louisiana floods and Hurricane Harvey. They are credited with rescuing thousands of citizens during those disasters.
These groups draw their name from the region's Cajun people, a significant number of whom are private boat owners and skilled boat pilots. Their boats consist of a number of types, but are typically small vessels such as bass boats, jonboats, air boats, and other small, shallow-draft craft easily transported to flooded areas.
The term "Cajun Navy" had earlier, unrelated origins before it evolved into its current usage. The earliest documented use of the term occurred in 1964 when outgoing governor Jimmie Davis received "a commission as a commodore in the Cajun Navy plus a four-star pirogue for his personal use" as a going-away gift by the Greater Lafourche Port Commission. It was also used in 1995 by a sub-krewe of the Krewe of Denham Springs as part of the krewe's Mardi Gras parade theme of "And Away We Go." Contemporary usage appears to have been coined in 2005 to describe private boaters who served as volunteer rescuers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; it was apparently used as such by then-Tulane University history professor Douglas Brinkley in a speech, as cited in the Baton Rouge Advocate:
"Among the unsung heroes, Brinkley said, are those anonymous boat operators—dubbed the Cajun navy—who navigated their private fishing boats and other vessels through flooded New Orleans to lend a hand after the hurricane hit. The sight of it all made him rethink his view of some laborers. 'I saw guys chain-smoking cigarettes...with tattoos out there saving dozens of lives,' he said in a recent address to the annual meeting of the Council for a Better Louisiana. Brinkley said official rescuers stood to the side, in some cases unable to navigate the streets-turned-waterways that demanded the navigational savvy of natives to the area."
The term received more currency in 2015, the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when commemorative articles in the media referred to the loose organization of south Louisiana boaters. CBS News, for example, reported that year, "Hurricane Katrina killed an estimated 1,800 people, but it could have been far worse if not for what became known as 'The Cajun Navy.' Hundreds of people in hundreds of boats gathered in Lafayette, Louisiana, to rescue thousands trapped by floodwaters..."
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Former Louisiana state senator Nick Gautreaux put out a plea across local TV and radio for "Anybody [who] wants to go help the people of New Orleans please come to the Acadiana Mall." Between 350 and 400 boats and people showed up. This makeshift flotilla that became known as the Cajun Navy is credited with rescuing more than 10,000 people from flooded homes and rooftops.
2016 Louisiana floodsEdit
Then in the 2016 Louisiana floods major flooding struck south-central Louisiana, resulting in even more attention for the informal rescue organization. "[M]akeshift flotillas popped up across the region over the weekend," observed USA Today during the disaster. "Many are operating under a name familiar in Louisiana: the Cajun Navy." Fortune magazine noted, "In the midst of one of the most severe (yet least-reported) natural disasters in recent history, a homegrown volunteer rescue squad known as the Cajun Navy is providing badly needed relief in flood-ravaged Louisiana." The Baton Rouge Advocate summed up the feelings of many when it wrote: "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."
In August 2017, the Cajun Navy deployed to effect rescues in the major flooding of southeast Texas by Hurricane Harvey. "'Cajun Navy' Races from Louisiana to Texas," ran a headline in the Chicago Tribune, which referred to the "Cajun Navy" as "a volunteer online grassroots effort that...roared into Pasadena, Texas, on Sunday. They came in high-clearance pickup trucks with bass boats and pirogues like the Cajun Cavalry, ready to help search and rescue efforts alongside first responders who were inundated with thousands of calls across the region."
- Morris, David Z. (2016). "How the 'Cajun Navy' is Using Tech To Rescue Flood Victims in Louisiana". Fortune. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
- Margaret Dixon (March 13, 1964). "Tribute Paid Davis As Term Nears End". Baton Rouge Morning Advocate (sec. A, p. 1).
- "'And Away We Go' theme for Krewe of Denham Springs ball". Baton Rouge Sunday Advocate (sec. C, p. 6). February 5, 1995.
- Will Sentell (December 14, 2005). "Inside Report: Historian praises N.O. 'Cajun navy,' raps Nagin, Bush". Baton Rouge Advocate (sec. B, p. 7).
- "How Citizens Turned into Saviors after Katrina Struck". 2015. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
- "How citizens turned into saviors after Katrina struck". CBS News. CBS Interactive Inc. August 29, 2015. Retrieved 31 August 2017.
- Hafner, Josh (2016). "Louisiana’s ‘Cajun Navy’ Sets Sail in Fishing Boats to Rescue Flood Victims". USA Today. Retrieved 28 August 2017.
- Wax-Thibodeaux, Emily (2017). "'Cajun Navy' Races from Louisiana to Texas, Using Boats to Pay it Forward". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 28 August 2017.