After three days helping victims of the Louisiana flood, volunteer Thomas Achord was piloting his boat back to shore when he saw authorities barricading the entry to the waterway in Livingston Parish.
“They were being friendly and they weren’t saying anything to us, but it was very clear that they were blocking things off,” said Mr. Achord. “It looked like they were purposefully getting in our way, and then they were directing traffic away from where people were putting their boats in the water.”
That was his last day as a member of the so-called Cajun Navy, the all-volunteer flotilla of Louisiana private boat owners credited with rescuing and helping countless thousands of marooned homeowners, livestock and pets at the outset of the flooding.
“After that, I didn’t go back out because I knew they were blocking off the main path that I could use to get to the water,” said Mr. Achord, a teacher and administrator at the Sequitur Classical Academy in Baton Rouge.
Experiences like Mr. Achord’s are what prompted Republican state Sen. Jonathan J.P. Perry to float the idea of legislation to certify trained volunteers in order to give them greater access to flood sites, instead of watching authorities turn away the would-be rescuers.
But the proposal landed him in hot water this week as others accuse him of trying to regulate the informal collective of boaters that finds much of appeal in the ability to react quickly to disasters without being anchored to government oversight or red tape.
“One of the best things about the ‘Cajun Navy’ is that they didn’t need the government to put them together and coordinate everything,” said Kevin Boyd of the Louisiana website the Hayride. “The last thing we need is do-gooder legislators inserting government where it is not needed.”
Mr. Perry, who broached the idea earlier this week on KPEL-FM talk radio in Lafayette, was caught off guard by the backlash, including what he described as “hateful” messages from people threatening his family and legislative assistant.
Those comments reflect what he described as a “complete misunderstanding” of his plan, which he said was designed to “unregulate” the Cajun Navy, not moor it.
“My intent is to eliminate it completely so that volunteers or members of the Cajun Navy, whatever association you want to call it, have immediate access to go and rescue our people,” said Mr. Perry in a video posted Wednesday on Facebook.
He said the solution could be as simple as having rescuers sign a liability waiver prior to a natural disaster.
If no policy change occurs, “members of the Cajun Navy or anybody else who wants to help will continuously get stopped and be prevented from going to rescue people because under current law if there’s a barricade or a perimeter set up by law enforcement and they’re told they cannot cross it — if they do, they are technically breaking the law,” said Mr. Perry.
Debate over whether certification would help or hurt the Cajun Navy comes as Louisiana braces for more rainfall following the Louisiana Flood of 2016, which left 13 dead and damaged more than 60,000 homes in the Baton Rouge area.
The National Weather Service issued Thursday a flood advisory Thursday for the Baton Rouge area, while a tropical disturbance off the Gulf Coast prompted New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu urged residents to plan ahead in case the system becomes a hurricane.
About 2,600 people remain in shelters as a result of the inland flooding, described by the Red Cross as the worst U.S. natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy in 2012, fueled by days of storms and a low-pressure system that began Aug. 5.
The Cajun Navy came as a godsend to many flooding victims, but the volunteer effort also brought with it instances of well-meaning but inexperienced boaters getting in over their heads and needing to be rescued themselves.
Louisiana National Guard Col. Ed Bush said ideally the volunteers would coordinate their efforts with state and local authorities.
“What they’re trying to do is prevent overzealous people from getting stuck themselves. We’ve had a couple of examples of that,” Col. Bush told The Associated Press.
At the same time, he said, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was “very clear that he was not looking to stifle or discourage the efforts of anyone helping.
“He often used the phrase ‘look left and right and help your neighbor’ but he did ask that people coordinate their efforts with state agencies to maintain visibility of who was where, and what they were doing,” said Col. Bush in an email. “The National Guard was never given any directive to dissuade, discourage or deny any rescue effort.”
Those in the Cajun Navy point out that many of them grew up in the area and know the terrain and tricky waterways better than government authorities.
“You’ve got all of these people who hunt and fish who have more experience than the average first responder,” Jared Serigne of St. Bernard Parish told the AP.
Mr. Achord said the vast majority of volunteers are seasoned water-hands who conducted rescues expertly and without incident.
“We grow up in the water. By the time I was two years old, I was sitting on my dad’s lap driving his bass boat with him,” said Mr. Achord, who lives in Denham Springs. “Anyone who’s got a bass boat or bateaux or a pirogue or any kind of water craft, they know what they’re doing.”
His rescue efforts included helping two lost middle-schoolers find their parents; guiding horses out of the deep, fast-moving current; taking aboard an elderly couple marooned in an attic, and giving a lift to a flock of chickens perched atop a tractor in the middle of a field.
“We went out to the tractor and the chickens just jumped in the boat like, ‘Hey, let’s get out of here,’” Mr. Achord said with a laugh.
He witnessed some incredible rescues as well, such as boaters using jet skis to herd cattle out of the water.
Rather than place the onus on the Cajun Navy to gain access to victims, Mr. Achord had a suggestion: Make it clear to state and local agencies that they need to accommodate private rescuers.
“I don’t understand why they won’t just stop the authorities from stopping us,” Mr. Achord said. “I don’t see why the legislative action has to focus on the citizen rather than the public servant out there. Why can’t they just stop them from stopping us, rather than having us get a certification?”
Then there’s the broader philosophical question of whether anything as freewheeling and impromptu as the Cajun Navy can ever be compatible with government.
“The Cajun Navy represents the best of Louisiana’s civil society, because it’s the outward sign of an inward state that Louisiana people carry within them,” said the American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who lives in Baton Rouge. “That law would be like Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani’s trying to ban jaywalking in New York City. It’s trying to go against the Tao. Won’t work.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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