The “Cajun Navy“—the volunteer flotilla of hundreds of sport fishermen and duck hunters from the Louisiana bayous (plus a whole lot of Texans) who towed their bass boats and other shallow-water craft to Houston to help rescue stranded flood victims—had to be one of the most beautiful stories to arise from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. There were plenty of other tear-inspiring incidents of people selflessly helping other people in devastated Houston last week: the local mattress king who opened his stores as shelters for hundreds, the Latino bakers who turned out sheets of free pan dulce to feed hungry victims, the human chain that formed to help a woman in labor get into a rescue truck. But it was the photos of the bass boats, jon boats, airboats, and even jet skis fanning out over freeways, roads, and lawns that had become rivers and lakes after Harvey poured nearly fifty-two inches of rain onto the city and its environs that made the most moving impression.
Strangely enough, though, not everyone is happy about the Cajun Navy. It seems that among many liberals and progressives, the idea is that rescue should be the sole province of government professionals, and that the volunteer Samaritans of Houston, often attired in military-looking duck-hunter camouflage and occasionally armed with guns, were just a step above vigilantes. A petulant article by New Yorker staff writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells conceded that the boatmen were “heroes,” but complained that Texas’s “libertarian” culture, leading to an “insufficiency of Houston’s city planning” and “willful ignorance of climate change” on the part of politicians, had made it necessary to rely on private citizens. “There is a cyclic pattern to the erosion of faith in government, in which politics saps the state’s capacity to protect people, and so people put their trust in other institutions (churches; self-organizing volunteer navies), and are more inclined to support anti-government politics,” Wallace-Wells wrote.
Slate columnist Katy Waldman mocked the idea that the generous responses of individual citizens to the Houston crisis represented the “best of America,” as both President Trump and a Washington Times editorial had put it. “National disasters shouldn’t be used for the purpose of national mythmaking,” Waldman scolded. “What if America is less a glorious nation of do-gooders awaiting the chance to exercise their altruism than a moral junior varsity team elevated by circumstance?” she wrote. A strange article by Jalopnik contributor Erik Shilling, headlined “The ‘Cajun Navy’ Descends on Houston, for Better or Worse,” faulted a Cajun Navy organizer for claiming on CNN that one of the volunteer boats had been shot at by likely looters and implied that “some people” among the volunteer rescuers had “itchy trigger fingers” and were spoiling for gunfights. Meanwhile, Shilling wrote, “Officials…said that police officers had completed over 2,000 rescue missions over the weekend, and The New York Times said Tuesday that over 30,000 people were in shelters, with rescues continuing and 12,000 National Guardsmen activated. The professionals, in other words, remain hard at work.”
Waldman and Shilling may well be right. Next week or next month, as Houston clears itself of wreckage and tries to rebuild, most of the volunteer guardian angels are likely to be back home evidencing all the human failings large and small—selfishness, self-indulgence, greed, pettiness, propensity toward physical or moral violence—that make the human race so exasperating to contemplate. But in Houston, they and other individuals, both volunteers and “professionals,” demonstrated that people really do have a “best” to which they are capable of spontaneously and selflessly rising. The Cajun Navy recalls Dunkirk in 1940, when 700 fishing boats and pleasure yachts alerted by radio and word of mouth arrived on the French beach under German fire to rescue 300,000 stranded British soldiers; it also calls to mind the 9/11 boatlift, when the ferrymen and tugboat operators of New York harbor evacuated some 500,000 people trapped in the south end of Manhattan after fleeing the burning World Trade Center towers in 2001.
Furthermore, as nearly every “professional” in Houston working on the ground to battle Harvey’s devastation—in contrast to the armchair progressives commenting on it—has gratefully acknowledged, the volunteer boatmen proved to be an essential component of the rescue operations, and not because the “libertarian” government in Texas was somehow deficient or because the Cajun Navy horned in on the National Guard. They proved essential because they were boatmen—men with years of experience reading the waters and the skies and navigating their craft over stumps and logs that might have made freeways seem like a piece of cake. As Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins wrote in what may be the finest piece of writing to emerge from Hurricane Harvey, “They’re used to maneuvering through the cypress of Caddo Lake or the hydrilla and coontail of the Atchafalaya, where the water might be four feet or it might rise to eighteen, and the stinking bog is called ‘coffee grinds’ because of the way boots sink in it. Spending hours in monsoon rains doesn’t bother them, because they know ducks don’t just show up on a plate, and they’ve learned what most of us haven’t, that dry comfort is not the only thing worth seeking.”
So rather than malign these men, or tut-tut that they are too libertarian, why not thank them for risking their lives to help others (a service for which none of them were paid). I doubt the judgmental journalists scolding the Cajun Navy would have been willing to do the same.