The Cajun Navy, Part Two

Posted by jlubans on November 14, 2012

In my recent story about team development I mentioned the spontaneous teams that came together for a week during the aftermath of the New Orleans flood and hurricane: the Cajun Navy. I used them to illustrate the positive side of disasters; that the challenge is immediate, it is tangible, and it calls out for humans to help other humans (along with dogs, cats and parakeets!) Sometimes we regular folks reject the status quo and take action.
Jefferson Hennessy’s story, “The Cajun Navy: Heroic Louisiana Volunteers Saved Thousands of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees”, describes how an array of organizers (leaders) and a myriad of volunteers (followers) came together to help a city in desperate need during a time when the city, state and federal leaders and governments - with the notable exception of the US Coast Guard, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement (DWFE) and a few state politicians and other official agencies - seemed incapacitated, unable to do much more than to wait for help, for permission, for the starting bell, for someone to shout DO IT! The volunteers did not wait - no hand wringing for them!
When the volunteers rolled into New Orleans there was considerable uncertainty among even helpful agencies on what to do with them. Hennessey’s account includes examples of how the hundreds of volunteers with their hundreds of boats circumvented officials who were opposed to the amateur rescuers or who were so dis-organized and ill-equipped they saw the volunteers as problems not helpers. For example:
At 6:00AM Wednesday, August 30, 2005, Gautreaux (who was mentioned in my first blog) and his citizen flotilla volunteers arrived in New Orleans. They were told to wait. Ryan Mathers, a citizen flotilla volunteer from Maurice, Louisiana recalled, "We sat and waited for about four hours." (The high that day was 98.2F!) Mathers struck out on his own to find a DWFE agent who would give him a mission; he was directed by a DWFE agent to follow him and a group of 15 Cajun Navy volunteer boats to various staging areas throughout the 9th Ward, perhaps the hardest hit of all of the N.O. neighborhoods.
In volunteer Deacon Leger's case, his group of volunteers also tired of waiting outside the city for an official green light and decided to find their own way into the city. Once in, they were told by a Louisiana State Police officer, "We don't need you." Some volunteers turned around and left, but Leger and those who stayed were adamant about completing their mission. They found a sympathetic City of New Orleans police officer that guided Leger and 40 boat owners across the breeched Industrial Canal levee into St. Bernard Parish to launch their boats and rescue efforts into the poisonous water. Leger and many other volunteers defied the “No Pets” policy of the N.O. Police. They believed that after what these victims had endured – hunger, fear, hopelessness – the last thing to do was to abandon their pets
Another major organizer, leader, in the Cajun Navy was Ronnie Lovett . (He, one source says, spent $200,000 of his own money on the rescue operation). Lovett’s initiative and compassion are illustrated in how he helped evacuate a chaplain's two elderly and frail hospital patients in need of immediate medical attention. They would die if left to wait along the road in the blazing sun and soggy heat. Lovett jumped off his boat, went up on the highway and flagged down a military vehicle. The Navy personnel listened to Ronnie and agreed to take the two patients to a functioning medical facility in Baton Rouge.

These stories of humans reaching out to the afflicted further confirm for me our potential for heroic action. I have a few wonderful friends who would do what the Cajun Navy did. What is it that makes them so ready to help - even when opposed by officialdom - while some of us stand by and leave it to the “agencies”?

P.S. During half-time at the next Notre Dame football game head over to the Hesburgh Library to borrow a copy of Leading from the Middle.


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