Michale “Gramma M” Williams’ phone buzzed as she headed up one of the Louisiana Cajun Navy’s latest hurricane-rescue efforts: Operation Shelter the Animals First.
“At present I have nine horses, I have two emus, one goat, nine swans, dozens of geese, dozens of chickens, dozens of ducks, dozens of guineas, and two dozen shore birds,” and a 200 pound pig, Williams said as she fielded calls for help moving animals out of Castle Hayne in New Hanover County, Pollocksville in Jones County and other areas.
Williams is a recent North Carolina recruit to the Cajun Navy, a loose collection of volunteer groups that continue to hone their homegrown search-and-rescue efforts, natural disaster after natural disaster.
It began when boaters descended on south Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They responded to the 1,000-year flood in Baton Rouge in 2016 and then Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year.
“They learned such hard lessons during Harvey,” Williams said of Peachland in Anson County, east of Charlotte. “If they had been able to get some of those animals out prior to the storm coming, it wouldn’t have been such a catastrophic difficulty trying to rescue humans and animals after the storm.”
Some Cajun Navy groups are setting up across the Carolinas, preparing to deploying their signature Louisiana fishing boats and airboats, great for shallow-water rescues.
“Right now we have about 35 or 40 boats,” said Todd Terrell, founder of the Baton Rouge-based United Cajun Navy. “By about 5 o’clock we are going to have a couple hundred.”
The volunteers are expanding their relief efforts on land, too.
For the past week, the Louisiana Cajun Navy, based in Hammond, Louisiana, has been working ahead of the storm, helping nail windows shut and find shelter for people and their pets. They communicate via the walkie-talkie like app Zello, using handles name like Gramma M.
The groups also plan to feed first responders and help meet fill gaps in the masses of needs that will likely follow the storm.
“We have another call for supplies [expected] to come from Baton Rouge, Destin, Florida, and Biloxi, Mississippi,” Terrell said.
About the Cajun Navy
The Cajun Navy started unofficially after Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast in August 2005, said Clyde Cain, founder of the Louisiana Cajun Navy based in Hammond, east of Baton Rouge.
“A call was made, and boaters came from everywhere,” Cain said. “They descended on New Orleans and other places.”
Authorities told them they couldn’t, but “they went in and did it,” he said.
The Cajun Navy reemerged in August 2016 during the catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge when it rained for three days.
“Ten million Olympic size swimming pools worth of water that had been emptied on us, and everything flooded,” Cain said.
Men and women used boats, flat-bottomed pirogues and air mattresses to get people to safety.
Cain rescued his daughter.
“You don’t rescue one person,” he said. “You go back and forth until everyone is picked up.”
And then Harvey hit Texas in August 2017, dropping an unprecedented amount of rain as it stalled out on the Texas coast.
“I had never spent five days rescuing people,” Cain said. “That was hairy.”
The United Cajun Navy, one of about a half dozen sects, oversaw 763 boats and 1,200 volunteers who rescued more than 10,000 people, Terrell said
President Trump mentioned the Cajun Navy in his 2018 State of the Union address, saying the U.S. had seen a year of fires, floods and storms.
“But through it all we have seen the beauty of America’s soul and the steel in America’s spine. Each test has forged new American heroes to remind us who we are and show us what we can be,” Trump said. “We saw the volunteers of the Cajun Navy racing to the rescue with their fishing boats to save people in the aftermath of a totally devastating hurricane.”
Over the last couple of years, different Cajun Navy sects have expanded their charitable efforts during off seasons. Each group is unique and manages its own finances and donations, which are sometimes raised through T-shirt sales and Facebook donation buttons.
Sometimes, people who are confused by the different factions, ask Cain if he runs the entire Cajun Navy.
“You couldn’t pay me $30 million to run all these guys, because they don’t all listen,” he said. “They all have their own ideas.”
But when it’s time to get along and come together, Cain said, they “get it done.”
The Hurricane Florence operation started about a week ago.
Cain came to town with five core guys and started working with other rescue groups on pet and large-animal needs. That included Cain driving 19 dogs from the South Carolina coast to Columbia.
One of those dogs, an American pit bull mix, didn’t make it to the second leg of the trip down to Florida after Cain fell in love with her.
He named her Bonnie Bella, and she is now the Louisiana Cajun Rescue’s mascot.
Currently, the Louisiana and United Cajun navys have set up at a more than 100-acre compound in Gaston, South Carolina.
A couple hundred horses, along with dogs, cats and rabbits have been brought there, a temporary stop on their way to safe ground.
Around noon Thursday, they had about 75 volunteers, with 300 were expected by the end of the day, Terrell said.
On Thursday Terrell and Cain stopped at the South Carolina Fire Academy in Columbia to meet local emergency responders and tell them about the Cajun Navy resources.
“We have boats, trailers, fuel, catering, manpower,” he said. “As a volunteer network we have resources that the government doesn’t have.”
And they can help without any red tape, Cain said.
On Friday, once they know where the needs are, they will fan out, Terrell said, while the catering crew will be firing up hot meals for the Cajun Navy and local emergency officials.
“That is what the Cajun Navy is,” he said. “It is a people-helping-people movement.”
“I always tell people that I think a disaster is God’s way of bringing the country back together and bringing people back together. … People just pick up their bootstraps and help their neighbors.”