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Cajun Navy races to the Carolinas; citizen rescuers pull people from rising waters

Floodwaters rise from the Neuse River in New Bern, N.C., on Friday during Hurricane Florence. (Logan Cyrus/AFP/Getty Images)

Working through the night on little sleep and lots of Mountain Dew and adrenaline, Taylor Fontenot, the Texas captain of an-all volunteer group known as America’s Cajun Navy, headed right into Hurricane Florence’s wrath. As the storm headed toward land Thursday night into Friday morning, Fontenot and his group say, they helped to rescue more than 150 people, including terrified parents, their sleepy toddlers and scores of elderly trapped in attics, as water moved higher and higher inside their homes.

“Man, last night was insane,” Fontenot said from the riverfront city of New Bern, N.C., where he was working alongside police and firefighters to save people from storm surge and flooding.

Todd Terrell, head of the United Cajun Navy, said those who did not heed pleas to evacuate got trapped in their homes or tried to leave too late. He said rescuers used air mattresses to float people to safety because the storm’s gusts were toppling rescue boats.

“A lot of people did not get out, tried to drive out, and a lot got stuck. So a lot of people we were rescuing from the tops of their vehicles,” Terrell said. “It’s real bad right now.”

The Cajun Navy put out a widespread call for more boats Friday, warning authorities that people who were trapped in their homes in the historic inland town were “terrified.”

As Hurricane Florence trudged west off the sea into the Carolinas, an armada of kayaks, fishing boats, shallow-draft duck hunting boats, airboats and pirogues moved north and east from Texas and Louisiana to meet the storm. As the rains and winds began to whip the coastline, the all-volunteer flotilla settled in.

Bring it on, they said. The Cajun Navy has arrived.

Just as they did last summer in Texas during Hurricane Harvey, a group of grass-roots, ragtag search-and-rescuers have moved into Florence’s path, hoping to offer their services to the flooded, the marooned, the injured. Credited with rescuing thousands of people and pets during Harvey’s unprecedented rains, they plan to do it all again, a vigilante crew trying to assist the government’s rescue efforts.

What they saw in New Bern is expected in other areas throughout North Carolina and South Carolina in coming days as Florence moves along the coast and heads inland — some areas already saw massive storm surges and are amid downpours that could ultimately measure dozens of inches of rain.

Wearing wraparound sunglasses, camouflage pants and tall mud boots, they streamed into Gaston, S.C., on Thursday to cheers and horn-honking. Some residents offered them gas cards and invited them to park their pickup trucks in their driveways or sleep inside their homes.

The United Cajun Navy, as this group is known, saw the moment as bittersweet.

“We aren’t here for a boat ride and a beer. We know this place is about to get hammered,” said Terrell, who is known as “Mr. Cajun Navy” and is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina. “We know we’re here because your house will be destroyed or your dog will be dead. And we’ll be looking for your loved ones.”

Hurricane Florence made landfall in Wrightsville Beach, N.C. Sept. 14, bringing powerful storm surges, high winds and strong rain. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

During Harvey, their rescues were sometimes chaotic, and there wasn’t much — if any — coordination with federal and state authorities. Some gated communities refused to let them in. Others welcomed them as blue-collar superheroes with boats, since no one else seemed to be showing up.

Cajun Navy leaders say they are working during Florence to coordinate more smoothly with local authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard when they can, but the storm is going to cover such a huge territory that they know the authorities won’t be able to handle everything.

“When people need saving, we will focus on that,” Terrell said.

Blair Burgess, who runs a social media company and lives near Gaston, a town outside Columbia, reached out to the Cajun Navy this week to invite them to come and help. He said he is a big fan.

“Maybe folks think it’s just a bunch of rednecks in jon boats, but really, it’s a bunch of good ol’ boys willing to travel across the country to help their neighbors,” Burgess said. “When I asked them to come for Florence, they said, ‘We will be in town in 24 hours.’ And sure enough, they were.”

A family friend loaned 180 acres of land so the Cajun Navy could set up a staging area there.

“It’s not that local firefighters and police can’t get it done, but having the extra help means a lot,” Burgess said. “You can never have too many hands. You never want to be wishing you had 15 more boats to save 15 more lives.”

For many volunteers, being a part of rescue teams has become a part of their identity and a way to cope with their own losses during catastrophic floods. Others have military experience and find volunteering cathartic.

Volunteers say that when they are on the ground, they help anyone who is crying out for them, ferrying terrified people with toddlers off rooftops or pets through windows as the fetid water rises.

Terrell lost his seafood business during Hurricane Katrina.

“We just know exactly what the panic and suffering is like,” he said. “And it’s hard to just watch at home and do nothing.”

Taylor Aucoin, a dispatcher with the Louisiana Cajun Navy in Baton Rouge, said that group already has rescued hundreds of horses and donkeys, and more than 100 German shepherds, getting them out of the way of Florence. Aucoin uses an app called Zello that allows her and her husband to radio in rescue requests to volunteer rescuers.

Their do-it-yourself relief effort during Hurricane Harvey became a symbol of the self-reliant spirit in Texas. During Harvey, there were so many people who needed to be rescued that emergency lines were jammed, and people were posting desperate pleas for help on social media.

"Cajun Navy" volunteer, Tim Isom, drove through the neighborhoods of East Houston to save those trapped in their homes in 2017. (Video: Whitney Leaming, Zoeann Murphy, Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post)

The Coast Guard on Friday warned against using social media to send calls for help and urged people to call 911 — “if they can” — saying it is more efficient to seek assistance through official channels. Various local governments have considered trying to regulate the freewheeling rescue groups and mandate training, but so far the Cajun Navy largely has been allowed to do its work unimpeded.

The Louisiana Cajun Navy’s Jordy Bloodsworth, 26, who drove 11 hours from his home in Baton Rouge, said it doesn’t matter to him where a call comes from.

“I wasn’t going to come, but my boss actually gave me a few paid vacation days and said, ‘Go do your thing,’ ” said Bloodsworth, who arrived in Gaston with his 18-foot custom boat that sports a gator tail. By Thursday evening, his group was on the move to Lumberton, N.C., an inland area that is prone to flooding and is likely to see major rains this week.

He brought plenty of packs of socks — “nothing worse than wet socks after a rescue” — some ice chests, boxes of granola bars and bottled water. Bloodsworth was 12 years old when Hurricane Katrina caused 14 feet of water to rush into his family’s home as levees failed. The family lost everything. He said he rescued dozens of people during Harvey.

“I figure if I could save even one person it’s worth it,” Bloodsworth said.

Fontenot, with America’s Cajun Navy, said he headed to New Bern this week from Sugar Land, Tex., hoping to get right into the middle of the storm — which he managed to do.

“Nothing like the adrenaline of saving lives,” he said. “Best drug in the world. It’s what we do.”