Days before the first drops of rain ever fell on Wilmington, volunteers from all over the United States mobilized in anticipation of the emergency response that would be needed when Hurricane Florence made landfall. Among the volunteers is a group of individuals collectively known as the United Cajun Navy.
In recent memory, their heroic efforts were brought to the forefront during 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas, but the nonprofit’s history dates back to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. When I asked Todd Terrell, founder of the United Cajun Navy, who these volunteers are, he explains there are a lot of Cajun Navy factions, many of which come together under the banner of United Cajun Navy. Comprised of mainly private boat owners, the group’s objectives are to rescue, relieve and rebuild in the face of devastation. They do this by conducting rescue missions, supplying clean water and food to those in need, and assisting with cleanup efforts after disaster strikes.
Volunteers wasted no time setting up a temporary headquarters in ILM and risked their own property—and lives—to help save others. “Some people think it’s so important to help, they’ll give up whatever they can to do it,” Terrell says. Among the giving souls is volunteer Leonard Harrison. He arrived in Wilmington Thursday evening, along with about 60 other volunteers. Harrison, who is from Mebane, North Carolina, was a medic in the U.S. Army and is now owns Carefree Merchant Processing. He is one of many everyday people with everyday jobs, living everyday lives, dedicated to the United Cajun Navy.
“We did mission after mission after mission,” Harrison recalls, “everything from picking people up in cars, to picking people up with boats, to leading through a neighborhood that was supposed to be one family but turned into, for our team, 155 people, 40 dogs and I think 16 cats and a bird. Other groups did as many as 50 [additional] rescues.”
Terrell adds when other traditional rescue efforts have to cease due to rules and regulations, the United Cajun Navy steps in. For these guys, the mission continues.
“We don’t stop,” he presses. “Everybody else stops when it gets dark or too dangerous. We have boats and equipment; we don’t stop.”
It’s typical of the group’s response. On Saturday, Sept. 15, for example, Terrell and other volunteers rescued people despite shelters being at max capacity. Nobody was going to be turned away. Their team made room for the evacuees at their makeshift command center, located at Peace Baptist Church.
“We’re picking these people up that are about to drown, on their roofs, in the middle of the night, and they’ve got no place to go,” Terrell says, “so we feel obligated to help them find somewhere to go.”
To help with relief efforts, Harrison brought with him a johnboat that someone donated from Facebook. “It was [from] somebody I’d never met before in my life,” Harrison tells. “He was a super guy.” Throughout Hurricane Florence, Harrison has volunteered in Wilmington but also in Leland, Ogden, Burgaw, and Belville.
Harrison and Terrell are just two of many heroes working to help restore our community. In fact, at least 21 states are represented (including Louisiana, Maryland, Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama) in local rescue efforts over the last week. Additionally, there are volunteers from Canada and Australia.
Terrell believes what keeps the volunteer group’s spirit alive is knowing they are a part of something bigger. They stand united in helping others in times of need.
“We’re a team,” he comments, “We high-five each other, we pray, we tell stories. The thing is, I’m boots-on-the-ground. I’m with these guys. I may be the coach, and I may be the leader, but I’m here in the water with them, and they love that. . .We are creating a badass group of volunteers who aren’t paid that can handle anything this country throws at us.”
When it comes to coordinating with local officials, Harrison says United Cajun Navy just lets the city they’re visiting know they’re on the way. Sometimes, it’s not until after a few rescues, the county and city officials buck up and pay attention.
“It took all we did Thursday and Friday before they started taking us seriously,” Harrison admits, “and then they started reaching out to us with missions.”
One of the most memorable operations thus far has been Harrison’s team helping the fire department Saturday night once they called. “They said, ‘There’s a family we can’t get to, can you help us?’ And we said, ‘Just show us the way.’”
The United Cajun Navy isn’t always received the same way government or well-known organizations are. They don’t wear uniforms, and they don’t have official vehicles—but they get the job done. According to Terrell, about one-third of the group has assisted with previous disaster-relief efforts, so they know what to expect. They bring everything from life jackets to baby formula, all on a volunteer basis. “We don’t get any funding,” Terrell points out, “We get donations by the pennies, but we need funding by the thousands.”
All of the United Cajun Navy volunteers are very clear about one thing: They don’t do this for recognition—it’s about helping people during a crisis. “It’s not about credit, it’s about reception,” Terrell said. “I’m trying to get the country and the government to respect my group.”
Their motivation comes from deep within the human spirit. They recognize their ability to be of help beyond the ordinary. “In my lifetime, I’ve served my country, I’ve given a kidney to someone I hardly knew, and I change anywhere between 50 to 70 tires a year,” Harrison explains. “I’m fortunate to be blessed, so I try to make sure I can be a blessing to others.”
These moments of sheer human compassion, when it’s just human hands reaching out to other human hands, bring unity. There is no political, social, religious, or socio-economic divide.
“One thing I say all the time,” Terrell remarks, “is that sometimes I think this is God’s way of bringing the country together. Because during a disaster, there’s no racism, you know? A lot of things go out the window.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, it is the selfless acts of neighbors—even long-distance neighbors in trucks and johnboats—that set the example for what we can be. It’s an example for what we can achieve when we set aside our differences to rebuild together.
To donate to the United Cajun Navy, visit www.facebook.com/unitedcajunnavy.