NEW ORLEANS ― As Hurricane Harvey caused waist-deep flooding across Houston this weekend, an assortment of volunteer heroes from Louisiana known as the “Cajun Navy” piled into trucks and hauled their duck-hunting boats straight into the raging storm to help.
Doug Payne, 35, and his brother-in-law left their homes in Lafayette, Louisiana, at 5 a.m. Monday to drive their 18-foot Gator Tail boat to Houston. The boat was designed for shallow waters, so it’s perfect for scooping up flood victims on city streets.
While communicating with the other Cajun boat captains via social media and walkie-talkie apps, Payne found a lower-middle-class neighborhood in East Houston where the water was nearly chest-high, and he started picking people up on the street and motoring them to an overpass nearby where a bus would take them to safety.
“We were out there all day ferrying people,” he said. “We just want to help, and we have the means and the opportunity.”
Volunteer coordinators in Houston estimate that at least 300 people associated with the Cajun Navy, a grass-roots rescue cavalry that began in the wake of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina, have come to Houston with their personal boats in the past few days to help flood victims. The group reportedly started with 23 vessels and now claims to have more than 1,000 members.
Louisiana is no stranger to hurricanes and floods, so many residents feel a sense of solidarity and camaraderie with their Texas neighbors.
“Louisiana may not have the biggest economy or rank the highest in education, but when it comes to culture and community, we can’t be beat,” Payne said.
Louisiana may not have the biggest economy or rank the highest in education, but when it comes to culture and community, we can’t be beat. Doug Payne, Cajun Navy volunteer
Houston resident Nicole Renee Hyatt, 38, is using the walkie-talkie app Zello to dispatch volunteers from the Cajun Navy to where they are needed. She has spent the past 24 hours telling men with radio nicknames like “Mother Trucker” and “Uncle Pucker” where to steer their boats. Meanwhile, her own home is completely flooded.
“My entire living room is full of water,” Hyatt said. “On Saturday I grabbed my kids, my dog and some shoes, and we walked ― or rather, swam ― to the neighbor’s house.”
Hyatt, a mother of three, fought back tears as she tried to distract herself from the destruction of her home by helping others. She said she was “completely moved” by the kindness of volunteers like Payne during this natural disaster.
“They’re strangers,” she said, “and they’ve left their families, left their homes, spent their money to be here. It humanizes this experience so much for me to see these people selflessly come over to help. I just really love people.”