Rescue officials were unable to reach trapped residents in Port Arthur, Texas on Aug. 30, after 26 inches of rain fell overnight due to Hurricane Harvey. People frantically turned to social media and posted desperate pleas and home addresses in the hope that someone — anyone — would rescue them.
Their hope was actualized by hundreds of volunteers, some members of the “Cajun Navy," as they poured into Port Arthur and other towns in southeast Texas with supplies, trucks, fan boats, mud boats, and canoes.
The volunteers wasted no time. Hundreds of people piloting their own personal boats entered flooded areas authorities could not access due to the high volume of water to reach residents.
Elderly folks were stuck at a nursing home in Port Arthur as water levels rose, with no sign of rescue in sight. Officials simply did not have the necessary equipment to reach them. Then volunteers like 23-year-old Hunter Wools came to their aid.
Wools, a resident from Bridge City, Texas, a town east of Houston, braved dangerous conditions in different cities affected by Harvey every day last week. Wools and his buddies took their personal boats out to affected areas, entering water that at times was 8-10 feet deep.
“It was crazy. We’d put a boat in and go ride down the highways and side streets and just find people that needed help,” said Wools. “In Port Arthur…one lady and her mom begged us to take them to the nursing home, but that nursing home wasn’t letting anyone leave. We ended up taking her grandma in a wheelchair anyways.”
The Cajun Navy was first recognized for its volunteer rescue efforts in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina, when hundreds of people used their boats to rescue stranded victims. While there is no official command, several groups call themselves members of The Cajun Navy and use social media as a forum to identify places where rescue is needed.
Residents in southeast Texas and southwest Louisiana have been devastated by the biggest rainstorm in U.S. mainland history. Thanks to volunteer efforts and the efforts of rescue officials, at least 13,000 people have been rescued in Houston and the surrounding area.
“We’re lucky enough in southeast Texas to be duck hunters and we have special equipment here that many people don’t have,” said 24-year-old rescue volunteer Chance Lemoine. “If it wasn’t for the equipment like our air boats and special boats, these rescues wouldn’t be possible.”
Lemoine and his buddies visited a string of affected cities in southeast Texas, using their trucks and boats to remove people from dangerous situations. When asked if they’re apart of the larger organization of volunteers known as the Cajun Navy, Lemoine laughs.
“I’ve had people offer me money and things they can give me after we rescue them, but I’m not doing it to try to get anything out of it ya know, I know this is what is expected of us around here,” said Lemoine. “Some people have been calling us the Cajun Navy but I don’t think we’re doing it for that title.”
For those that want to volunteer to help affected areas, Wools suggests making a plan first. Volunteers, some claiming the name of The Cajun Navy, rally together every morning to plan their missions.
Where at first they relied on rumors, volunteers have started using apps and rescue radios, and have partnered with local fire departments and sheriff deputies to organize.
“I don’t try to waste my time. I might eat once a day and that’s how everyone else is too. We’re trying to stay busy and get everyone out,” said Lemoine. “I have seen people from the Niagra Falls Fire Department and men from Florida bringing boats to help.”
While the rescue missions have been worth it, they have not been easy. Volunteers are working from 7 a.m. until sometimes late into the night. Wools and his buddies went out to Port Arthur at 1 a.m. in the morning the night the hurricane moved into the area to save a family from a flooded apartment building.
“When we got there the weather was horrible, it was the night the hurricane was just coming through here, and we were trying to find the family when people heard my boat coming up they started flocking to my boat,” said Wools. “It was difficult to turn those people away and tell them we were going after one specific family, and when we got them back from the flood the lightning had gotten so bad that we had to pull out of there and we couldn’t do anything else that night.”
When the volunteers weren't transferring people from flooded homes to shelters, they removed sheet rock and carpet from surrounding homes hit hard by Harvey. Their boats have been extremely damaged from their rescue efforts, but these volunteers don’t care.
They ask for nothing in return, and act only to help people in need. Hurricane Harvey was destructive, but volunteers like those in Texas have helped alleviate some of that damage.
My uncles have been rescuing people in Port Arthur for 24hrs! So blessed to have such a helpful family who help others in times like this! pic.twitter.com/O2qIVGHqxR— Emily Hiatt (@Emily_Hiatt) August 30, 2017