WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE NAME Alligator Armada? Florida’s Sunshine Fleet or with a tip of the governor’s ball cap, Scott’s Navy? The name Cajun Navy is already spoken for.
After hours of riveting CNN coverage of the flooding in Houston and the response from boat owners pressed into volunteer rescue squads, I’ve heard the call for an informal organization in Florida that could be mobilized to help in the aftermath of a hurricane.
After Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana boaters created the Cajun Navy when a plea was put out by local officials for volunteers with boats to help with the rescue of thousands of residents.
The group quietly returned to back bayou watering holes knowing the next big one is a reality of Gulf Coast living. On August 13, 2016, Louisiana was hammered again by a no-name storm that led to historic flooding. The Cajun Navy fired up airboats, Jon boats and rafts, re-emerging to save neighbors. This past August, they did it again for people in Texas.
The difference this time was social media and smartphone apps that mobilized this unofficial group. With countless cars flooded, these sportsmen took direction from first responders and helped gather donated food, water and supplies, delivering to remote, hard-to-reach areas.
Social media—in particular, the Zello app—brought them together 24 hours after Hurricane Harvey came ashore. Mobilizing in a Costco parking lot in Baton Rouge, they employed another app, Glimpse, to track the hundreds of boats, RVs and big trucks that took donated supplies into Texas and various staging sites. Jon Bridgers Sr. is the founder of the modern-day Cajun Navy.
“Everyone got trained in the year since our big flood; this year, we were tested,” he said. No one is paid; they are all volunteers, using their own money, their own gas and their own food to help first responders who were quite simply unable to be everywhere in a disaster of this magnitude.
I talked with Florida’s Division of Emergency Management about creating a Florida version of the Cajun Navy. The idea has a few legal concerns, liability probably being chief among them, but Communications Director Alberto Moscoso said, “We always welcome individuals and resources from all backgrounds and skill sets to volunteer in support of and engage with any state disaster response.”
During Hurricane Irma, the Red Cross saw more than 37,000 volunteers sign up over the course of just two days following Governor Scott’s request for at least 17,000. Moscoso notes, “These selfless individuals are a critical part of any emergency response, and we encourage people to consider lending a hand to organized state efforts.”
We’ll need a leader—every great organization has one—and a way to register emails for volunteers with boats and safety training is a must. Count on FEMA, the Red Cross and county-by-county emergency management centers for initial training and unofficial logistical support. Florida is the No. 1 state in boat registrations: 905,298 last year. By comparison, Louisiana has 306,689 registered boats. They’ve set an example of compassion and service.
As the folks at FEMA are fond of saying, it’s not a question of Florida being hit by a Category 5 storm, it’s a question of when. Hurricane Irma was the wake-up call. I like the notion of helping neighbors, whether they are a block away, a city away or as the Louisiana Cajun Navy demonstrated, a state away. Maybe this is part of the true meaning of “Making America Great Again.”
Story by Alan Wendt, Southern Boating, November 2017
PHOTO: FEMA/JOCELYN AUGUSTINO